The age of gathering ‘round the dinner table may be officially over: A new survey from research group NPD reports that over half of Americans eat breakfast and lunch on their own, and, while dinner is the most social meal, 32 percent still feast friendless for their last meal. Researchers point to hectic schedules and the rise of single-person households. And while this news may seem sad, it begs a bigger question: Are we better off eating unaccompanied?
Some experts say yes: “When people eat alone, they eat less and eat healthier than when dining with others,” says John de Castro, Ph.D., expert on the psychology of human eating habits. A number of studies report that people mirror how healthy—or indulgent—the order, serving size, and eating pace of their dining companion. And girl’s night may be the worst: Women are more likely to match the eating and drinking pace of same-sex dinner companions than when dining with a guy, according to Dutch researchers.
And your family isn’t much better than your friends. “When you have a husband or kids, you’re typically eating at pre-determined times and making meals that satisfy everyone else’s requests,” says Debra Umberson, Ph.D., sociology professor at the University of Texas at Austin. On your own, you can eat when you’re actually hungry and make choices based off your preferences alone. So unless you’re feasting with all fitness buffs, you’re probably matching unhealthy habits by eating with others.
But there is one major downside to solo snacking: Eating alone means a lack of social interactions, de Castro points out. And while you can be alone and happy, loneliness can hurt your health: A 2013 British study found socially isolated people were 26 percent more likely to die than those with the most active social lives. Loneliness also impairs immune function and boosts inflammation, which can lead to arthritis, type II diabetes, and heart disease.
“People should continue to eat with family and friends but do so mindfully, forearmed with the knowledge that they're in danger of overeating,” de Castro suggests. And your mindfulness can actually help your friends—all of that social mimicry isn’t a bad thing if someone sets a healthy trend for meal choice, eating pace, and serving size.