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November 04, 2021

Eating alone may have negative health consequences, but not all experts agree

Some researchers say loneliness – which is not true of all solitary diners – is the key factor

Healthy Eating Loneliness
Eating alone health effects Diva Plavalaguna/

A higher frequency of eating alone has been associated with a higher risk of abdominal obesity and elevated blood pressure in some studies.

It is a well-documented fact that an unhealthy diet can lead to a host of issues, including obesity, metabolic syndrome, diabetes and heart disease. But could a lack of a dining partner also increase the risk for these conditions?

Some experts believe so, as studies have linked frequently eating alone to a higher risk of abdominal obesity and elevated blood pressure. Eating alone also has been shown to impact mood and cause unhealthy habits to form, including how much and what a person eats.

The prevailing thought is that solitary diners tend to eat faster. This often leads to increases in body mass index, waist circumference, blood pressure and blood lipid levels – all of which are risk factors for cardiovascular disease and other disorders.

A study published in Obesity Research & Clinical Practice found that men who eat by themselves at least twice a day are more likely to develop metabolic syndrome – a cluster of risk factors that increase the risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes.

In today's society, more and more people are eating alone due to an increase in single-person households and the ease of food delivery services. Safety measures implemented due to the COVID-19 pandemic, like social distancing and quarantine requirements, also have increased the number of people dining alone.

Older women are particularly at-risk

According to the North American Menopause Society, one particular at-risk group is older women in menopause. A recent study, published in the society's journal, suggests that older women who regularly eat alone have a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, poorer nutritional knowledge and a higher prevalence of angina.

Though decreased levels of estrogen primarily increase women's cardiovascular disease risk as they get older, eating habits also play a role. 

In a group of almost 600 menopausal women older than age 65, the researchers compared the health behaviors and nutritional status between those who regularly ate alone to those who more often ate with others.

Overall, they found that the women who ate alone had poorer nutritional knowledge and diet. They had lower intakes of energy and consumed less carbohydrates, dietary fiber, sodium and potassium than those who ate with others.

The women who ate alone also had more than double the risk of experiencing angina – a type of chest pain caused by reduced blood flow to the heart that is a symptom of coronary artery disease.

"This study shows that older women who eat alone are more likely to have symptomatic heart disease. They are also more likely to be widowed and to have lower incomes and poorer nutritional intake," said Dr. Stephanie Faubion, medical director of the North American Menopause Society. "These results are not surprising given that lower socioeconomic status and social isolation contribute to lower quality of life, greater rates of depression and poorer health." 

Loneliness may be the key factor

Not all experts agree with the blanket statement that eating alone is bad for our health, pointing to evidence that suggests people still choose to consume healthy foods when doing so.

As many crave a quiet meal to themselves on occasion, some researchers believe that the real issue is loneliness, which has been linked with eating alone too frequently and not as a matter of choice.

Experts like Dr. Stephanie Cacioppo, a neurobiologist at the University of Chicago, say that the way people feel when they eat is more important. It is the loneliness, not whether a person is dining solo or with others, that can increase the likelihood of choosing a meal higher in fat and calories.

Additionally, they note that many of the studies on the health effects define what eating alone means differently, and they use varying measurement methods that make it difficult to come to any overall conclusions.

If you have no choice but to eat alone most days, psychologists have detailed some different strategies that can help you make healthier choices, like subscribing to a meal service plan for more convenience.

Changing your perspective on meal prepping also matters. Instead of seeing it as a chore to be completed as quickly as possible, look at it as a selfish act done for your own health and happiness. 

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