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Eating alone is the new norm and it could be harmful to your health

As more of us eat our meals alone, there are concerns about our mental and physical well-being.

Eating alone impacts our nutritional well-being and our risk of developing chronic diseases

Time pressures are impacting how often we eat and leading to the normalization of eating alone.

More of us live alone than ever before, according to Statistics Canada, which means more of us are eating alone. And the consequences can be significant.

Chelsey Anseeuw is trying to change that. She's a social planner for the city of Edmonton in family and community supports. She says last year's annual Vital Signs report that measures the health of a community found 18 per cent of Edmontonians feel isolated.

In response, her and her team launched a pilot this year called "Hello, Let's Eat."

"We immediately thought of food as one of the tools that we could use," said Anseeuw. "Eating together is a great way to get to know one another; it provides a conversation starter and a common experience to connect over."

Hello, Let’s Eat is a pilot project with the goal of bringing neighbours together over the act of sharing food. (Hello, Let's Eat/City of Edmonton)

Anyone who wants to host a communal-style meal can borrow place settings and equipment for free. To date, there have been thirteen community-style events booked through the program with several more planned in the coming weeks.

'I turn on the TV to take my mind off of being alone when I'm eating.'

Dan Gleason lost his wife in a car accident and lives alone in Fredericton—his kids live in other cities.

"Living alone means you're eating alone," he told CBC Radio's Cross Country Checkup earlier this year during a discussion about loneliness in Canada. "I'm used to some type of interaction over food. I turn on the TV in order to take my mind off of being alone when I'm eating."

Situations like Gleason's helped inspire a national campaign by President's Choice called "Eat Together." The campaign includes an annual Eat Together Day where people share their stories, like the one in this video where one woman says she shares her life with others by sharing the food that gives her life.

Eating alone impacts nutritional wellbeing and development of chronic diseases

According to Sarah Kirk, a professor of health promotion at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, time pressures are impacting how often we eat and are leading to the normalization of eating alone. Her team has studied the effects of eating solo and they extend beyond our mental health.

"The shift toward eating alone is actually likely to impact our nutritional well-being, which in turn is going to impact our risk of developing things like chronic diseases," said Kirk. "People who eat alone may be less likely to cook food from scratch, for example, and will rely instead on ready meals that can actually be higher in fat, salt, or sugar."

Sarah Kirk is a professor of health promotion at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. (David Burke/CBC)

The trend is playing out not just at home, but at work, where researchers at Dalhousie found about two-thirds of us eat on our own. Breakfast is the meal we eat alone most often.

"If we choose to eat alone, then it's not likely to be a problem, but having to eat alone is a different story," said Kirk. "So with more people living alone out of circumstance rather than choice, of course, we're going to see eating alone becoming as much of a concern as loneliness is now becoming."

The study surveyed over a thousand Canadian adults and had a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.  

Fewer stigmas towards eating alone in public

Online reservation platform OpenTable has seen an 85 per cent increase in reservations for one person in the last couple of years.

It's a significant shift from the societal stigma towards eating alone seen just 20 years ago.

In a 1997 episode of Seinfeld, Elaine pretends to live in a janitor's closet so a restaurant will deliver to her location. She says, "It's better than eating it alone in the restaurant, like some loser."

Sara Kirk says she's glad things are changing, but thinks there's still work to do.

It's a lot easier to eat alone when you can stare at your screen at the same time.- Sarah Kirk, professor of health promotion at Dalhousie University

"It could be a sign of empowerment, but it may also be a product of necessity and I think it's also mirrored in our reliance on things like smartphones. So it's a lot easier to eat alone when you can stare at your screen at the same time," said Kirk.

She says instead of looking down at phones, people should try to look at others while eating and healthy potlucks at work are an excellent place to start.

"I'd love to see things like that happen more in businesses and workplaces," said Kirk. "I'd also love to see more restaurants offering shared tables for people who are eating alone and using that as a chance to meet someone new while sharing a meal and address the other scourge of modern society, which is loneliness."

About the Author

Jason Osler is the national 'trends' columnist for CBC Radio.

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