The number of older adults is increasing and most want to live at home as long as possible. However, aging brings its share of challenges and many older adults live alone. For example, it is not uncommon for the appetite and motivation to cook meals for one person to decrease or for meal preparation to be more difficult due to loss of autonomy and mobility.
However, eating is both a biological necessity and an important element of social life.
But what do we know about the impact of eating alone or with others on health and well-being?
What research tells us
An evidence synthesis examined 98 studies on the effects of eating alone or in groups among community-dwelling and independent older adults.(1) Studies of older adults living in long-term care facilities or hospitals were excluded.
The synthesis revealed that the main effects of eating alone or sharing a meal are linked to psychological health (loneliness and depressive symptoms) and physical health (weight and nutritional status). Here are the main findings:
1. Food and loneliness
Although the synthesis do not provide any information on the methodological quality of the studies examined, the results suggest that eating alone has negative effects. Eating alone, day after day, can worsen depressive symptoms and feelings of being a burden. In several studies, being alone at the table is described as a factor of loneliness and demotivation when it comes to cooking and eating. Studies show that there is an increased risk in men, especially when they live alone.
On the contrary, having company during meals helps break loneliness and socialize. In addition, eating at a restaurant or at home with loved ones is a social activity that helps maintain social connections. This improves emotional well-being and strengthens the support network.
A study looked at people with dementia and their caregivers: it seems that the engagement of people with dementia during meals is facilitated when they consider the meal as a ritual and not as a task, that their caregivers take advantage of the meal to encourage conversation with them and that the meal is shared with a group in a calm environment.
2. Diet and nutritional status
Older adults may be less motivated to cook healthy and balanced meals for themselves, which can lead to serious health consequences, such as frailty, weight loss and health problems related to malnutrition. Is eating alone associated with lower food consumption and higher nutritional risk? The answer to this question varies from one study to another. However, we note that:
- people who are at high nutritional risk often eat alone
- eating alone can lead to a reduction in the number of meals eaten during the day and the time spent eating, particularly in men
- among men, living alone and eating alone are associated with unhealthy eating habits
- women whose nutritional status is already at risk present a greater cognitive decline than others if they also eat alone
- older adults who rarely share a meal with others (less than once a month) have poorer health, eat less diversely and less frequently than those who share meals more often.
Eating with a group promotes a more balanced diet: variety of foods, appropriate portions, respected meal times. Eating with other people increases the total energy intake of a meal by 60% compared to a person eating alone! Moreover, surprisingly, older adults who eat alone, but who do so in front of a mirror, consume more food and believe that their food tastes better!
3. Some exceptions
We should not generalize or draw hasty conclusions: some older adults may prefer to eat alone, out of a desire for independence and tranquility. Furthermore, some people with type 2 diabetes consider that sharing meals with others is an obstacle to changing their lifestyle and eating habits.
Options for those living alone
Ask your community center for information: several places allow older adults living in the community to come together to cook and share a meal.
Having company during meals has positive effects on overall health. Who will you call to break bread?