What is it about breaking bread with others that makes a meal more than just a meal? Research is showing communal eating promotes health benefits that extend beyond merely eating in the company of others. With the pace of modern life, people are eating fewer meals at the table with loved ones and more meals in the car, at their desks, and in front of the TV. The unfortunate news is our timesaving and multitasking strategies have serious health implications.
In a 2014 study published in the journal Nutrition Research and Practice and in a 2015 study published in the journal Appetite, people who eat alone were shown to have poorer eating habits than those who eat with others. The primary diet pitfall contributing to the unsatisfactory nutritional rating is lower intake of vegetables. Vegetables have a benevolent reputation for a good reason. They are a rich source of micronutrients and antioxidants — essential nutrients that help our bodies function and protect our DNA.
Compounding low vegetable intake is the fact that meals eaten alone tend to be lower quality. Food technology has made it possible to consume hyperpalatable meals that are cheap and convenient. No longer is a home-cooked meal the only way to get comfort food. Now you can find frozen entrees and fast food with the same taste as a homemade meal, but with fewer nutrients and more artificial ingredients.
There are also dietary patterns that tend to occur with isolated eating such as stress eating and binge eating. Without social influence people tend to engage in behaviors they would normally refrain from if they were in the presence of friends and family.
So if eating alone is associated with poorer dietary habits, what does the research show about eating with others? In short, communal eating not only activates beneficial neurochemicals, but also improves digestion. The dining table provides an opportunity for conversation, storytelling, and reconnection. When you bond with others and experience a sense of connection, endogenous opioids and oxytocin are released that stimulate pleasant feelings. The neurochemical changes lead to improved well-being and contentedness.
Even more promising is the effect of social connection and a healthy diet on telomere length, a marker that indicates your rate of aging. Telomere length has been shown to be positively associated with a healthy diet in a study published in 2011 in The Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry. More studies are currently underway, as reported in the journal Aging in 2016, to demonstrate how both diet and social factors protect your telomeres and promote longevity.
One of the most well-known benefits of enjoying a meal with others is the effect on heart rate variability (HRV) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). High HRV activates the PNS, which is also known as the “rest and digest” branch of the nervous system. Positive states of mind like love, gratitude, and connection induce the relaxation response, which increases HRV and activates your PNS. As the PNS is activated, digestive function improves. Proper digestion not only improves absorption of nutrients, but also prevents symptoms of indigestion like heartburn, flatulence, and bloating.
With all the evidence pointing to the benefits of communal eating, it seems the traditions of yesteryear have merit. Inviting a friend over for meals or being intentional about sitting down at the dinner table with your family can not only add life to your years — but years to your life. Bon appetit!