Published 29th December 2022

The health benefits of eating together

You might think that what you eat and when are the only factors that affect how healthy your diet is. But recent research has shown that who you eat with can also play a role. And it could even make your food taste better.

In today’s short episode of ZOE Science & Nutrition, Jonathan and Sarah ask: Can eating with other people really improve your food?

Studies referenced in today’s episode:

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This podcast was produced by Fascinate Productions.

Transcript

[00:00:00] Jonathan Wolf: Hello, and welcome to ZOE Shorts, the bite-sized podcast where we discuss one topic around science and nutrition. I'm Jonathan Wolf, and as always, I'm joined by Dr. Sarah Barry. And today's subject is social eating. 

[00:00:16] Sarah Berry: It's reasonable to think that the food you eat is the only factor in how healthy your diet is, right? But what we're seeing now is that that's not strictly true. It turns out how you eat, including who you eat with, might be important too.  

[00:00:27] Jonathan Wolf: So, Sarah, you're saying that eating with other people could be better for you than eating alone. 

[00:00:30] Sarah Berry: There's some surprising evidence showing that social eating may have a whole range of emotional and physical benefits. Believe it or not, there's some evidence showing that eating together can even make food taste better.  

[00:00:38] Jonathan Wolf: Amazing. So is that too good to be true? Let's dig into it and find out. 

[00:00:46] Sarah Berry: Picture two kitchen tables. It's an average Wednesday night. One table is covered in dishes of delicious food. The whole family's gathered around chatting and enjoying the meal. On the second table, there's one solitary figure scrolling on their phone at the same time as they're eating.  

[00:00:58] Jonathan Wolf: And just listening to this, I know which table I'd rather be at. 

[00:01:00] Sarah Berry: Me too, but eating alone is on the increase. A U.K. survey from 2017, shows that a third of weekday evening meals are eaten in isolation, and the average adult eats 10 outta 21 meals alone every week. And similarly in the US. About a quarter of dinners are also eating alone.  

[00:01:14] Jonathan Wolf: Now that's likely because of the pressure of busy lifestyles. So I just thinking about last night, my wife was out, so I was eating on my own. There's an aging population, so increasing number of people who may be living on their own, and just the general increase in single-person households.  

And let me guess, despite all of this, actually eating alone is the one that's bad for you. 

[00:01:29] Sarah Berry: It's been associated with disordered eating behaviors, depressive symptoms, obesity, and high blood pressure. So rather a depressing list, Jonathan.  

[00:01:35] Jonathan Wolf: Yeah, that doesn't sound that great.  

[00:01:37] Sarah Berry: Yeah. And also we know that the diet quality, so how healthy the food is that people are eating is lower in people who eat alone than in people who eat together. 

[00:01:45] Jonathan Wolf: So I'm assuming then that there's plenty of benefits to eating together.  

[00:01:47] Sarah Berry: Yeah. Let's break this down into some different categories. So first of all, there are the social and the emotional aspect. And research has shown that people who eat socially. More often feel happier and are more satisfied with their life. They're also more trusting of others and more engaged with their local communities. So that about sums me up. I think, Jonathan.  

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[00:02:03] Jonathan Wolf: I think that's right. I'm also somebody who's not very keen to be on their own for too long, which is a problem for someone who spends a great deal of time sitting in their attic, in their office like this. 

And I think what you're saying is eating together leads to social bonding. And that sounds good, but what does that mean about the flip side? What if we can't eat together in person and we've all experienced the pandemic when we had, this forced isolation maybe with our families, maybe entirely on our own? What happened there?  

[00:02:25] Sarah Berry: Yeah, excellent question, Jonathan. And there's some evidence that even coming together digitally, so whether it be over zoom for example, but to eat meals digitally together can have some positive effects, but of course, it wouldn't replace the benefits of that in real-life social eating.  

[00:02:37] Jonathan Wolf: So I mean, all that community stuff makes sense. The bond is very important. What about the food we eat? Are there dietary benefits of social eating?  

[00:02:44] Sarah Berry: So that's where things get interesting and I'd love to talk about the rate at which we eat first.  

[00:02:48] Jonathan Wolf: And I know this is something you've got interested in, Sarah. 

So I think there's some evidence that the faster you eat, the more energy you consume, and the bigger the blood sugar spike in your body. So what happens in a social setting? Do we eat faster or slower?  

[00:02:59] Sarah Berry: So it hasn't been very well studied, but what research does show currently is that if you eat in a social setting, you tend to eat a little bit more slowly, but you tend to eat a little bit more. 

[00:03:09] Jonathan Wolf: That's interesting. So you might eat more food because you're with other people than on your own, but over a longer period of time. And I know if Tim was here, he would immediately talk about the way that people eat in Spain and Italy and all the places that he likes to be in the summer with these big family meals spread out over hours. 

And How, that is just a much better natural way for us to eat. So it sounds like you're saying there is some evidence, for this and yet interestingly you eat some more food if you are in that context than if you're just sort of wolfing it down on your own while looking at your phone.  

[00:03:33] Sarah Berry: Yeah, so I think there's a couple of great things we could pick up on there. So one is about being distracted. So we know from research that if you, eat while watching tv you tend to eat more than if you were not, be watching the television because you're distracted. So there is that kinda social distraction that you're in that social setting, you're distracted and you are eating in a more automated way. 

So you might eat a little bit more, but on the other side of the coin is that by eating more slowly, you are reducing these big sudden spikes that you might get in blood sugar from eating rapidly, which we know is unfavorable in terms of our health. So I think it's kind of balanced itself out really. 

[00:04:04] Jonathan Wolf: That's interesting and what about the impact on the sort of nutritional quality of what people are eating?  

[00:04:08] Sarah Berry: That's a key upside, I think is the nutritional benefits. It's been observed that children who had less frequent family meals had a lower diet quality, so consumed less healthy foods than those who ate family meals every day. 

 We know that when families sit down together, adolescents or teenagers have more fruits and vegetables, they have less soft drinks, and less fast food, and they also have a better intake of protein, calcium, iron, folic fiber, and vitamins, which is so important during those teenage.  

[00:04:31] Jonathan Wolf: I think if anyone has teenage children as I do, they'll just be listening there saying, that is so true. 

Given this, we're saying that food quality is higher, but you might eat more calories. Interestingly, you're saying we might have, better health outcomes. And I guess again, that tells you that the amount of calories you eat in any particular meal is not very important, and it's sort of the health, quality of the food that's important. 

Is there any risk that all of this is not ready to do with food quality? But because homes that share meals are homes that might have the money to buy fresh food or have the sort of lifestyles which again is related to their work, which means have the time and energy to cook and eat together. 

[00:05:03] Sarah Berry: Yeah, that's possible. Jonathan. It's one of the reasons why research in this area and in fact research around anything to do with diet and health is so, so complicated. what we eat and how we eat are so linked to how we live our lives. So it's really difficult to separate the effects of eating together from all the other potential contributing factors like you just listed. 

As with anything in nutritional research, we need to do lots more work to disentangle this. And the only way we can do this is by doing the huge kind of studies that we are doing at ZOE with our predicts studies where we can look at lots and lots of different factors and collect a huge amount of data that gives us that cross-section of how people live their lives and all of the different exposures, that might shape their responses to food. 

[00:05:39] Jonathan Wolf: I think that's right. And I guess the other thing that's I think anecdotal but striking is. If you're eating in a group, you are more likely to cook the meal and it's less likely to be something that's ultra-processed. Right. And, you know, just remind everybody. Ultra process is something that is made in a way that you couldn't do in your kitchen. 

And we think about something that you put in the microwave or you warm up. I wonder whether we talked about social eating. Part of this element is coming from this human interaction, but it seems plausible to me also that this is changing the sort of food you eat. 

And I know that when I'm on my own, it's a lot easier to just say, it's not worth cooking this thing from scratch. It's a lot of effort. You're much more likely to waste it, right? It's harder to use up, these ingredients. If you have people coming around or we're cooking for, the whole family, somehow it just makes more sense to do this cooking. 

[00:06:18] Sarah Berry: I think so, and I think from a practical point of view, it's quite difficult to cook a diverse meal for one individual consuming in isolation without a lot of food wastage. And so I think this is important to factor in as well, that we know that dietary diversity, and by this I mean a diverse amount of ingredients within a meal or over a week is important for our health, particularly for our gut microbiome.  

So increasing the diversity of different plant-based foods we know is a really simple strategy to improve the health of our microbiome, which we know has far-reaching health effects. 

Now, if I'm only cooking a meal for myself, I'm not gonna go and buy 10 different plants or 10 different ingredients because A lot of it might go in the bin. And so this is one reason why people eat on their own unless they're great at planning, which I know I wouldn't be, and will not be consuming the same diversity. 

 For example, my sister lives alone, she would love to eat the kind of meals that we were brought up with as a family eating. And sometimes she's great and she might pre-prepare the weekend and freeze, but 9 times out of 10, she doesn't have the time.  

So she'll go and buy quick ready-made meals, or she'll use really simple ingredients like her go-to pesto pasta, probably three nights a week because she knows there won't be any waste. She's a primary school teacher. She can't afford to be wasting food. And also from a kind of planetary health perspective, we want to minimize food waste as well. So there's a really practical element to this as well.  

[00:07:26] Jonathan Wolf: And you know what, this been the ZOE podcast. I think we need to talk a little bit about those trillions of bacterial friends. And we found a fantastic paper that was published in nature just a couple of years ago looking at the microbiome. Varies depending on your relationships.  

What it showed is that people with close relationships have a more diverse microbiome, more different species of bacteria which we know is generally better for you. And interestingly, married individuals had greater diversity and richness of their microbiome relative to those who are living on their own.  

So Sarah, on balance we covered a lot of different aspects. c What do you think can social elite be better for us than eating alone?  

[00:08:13] Sarah Berry: Well, I think from my own personal perspective, social eating is fun. I think the evidence shows that eating alone is associated with some negative outcomes, including depressive symptoms and high blood pressure. 

We also know that eating together promotes social bonding. It promotes that emotional well-being I'm sure we can all relate to. And importantly, we know that children eating with their families. They tend to eat better quality meals, so they tend to have higher quality nutrients as well. Now the research isn't very clear on the health benefits, although it has been suggested that there might be beneficial effects on cardiovascular health, obesity, and microbiome health. 

That you very nicely outline for us. But I think again, it's one of these areas that I'm excited about what the research in the future will unravel.  

[00:08:48] Jonathan Wolf: Wonderful. Sarah, thank you for taking us through this today I think that was a fun topic for this time of year. If you'd like to understand what to eat when social eating, then why not try ZOE's personalized nutrition program to improve your health? 

You can get 10% off by going to joinzoe.com/podcast. I'm Jonathan Wolf.  

[00:09:03] Sarah Berry: And I'm Sarah Barry.  

[00:09:04] Jonathan Wolf: Join us next week for another ZOE podcast.

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