We know that an unhealthy diet can lead to a host of issues including obesity, diabetes, heart disease and metabolic syndrome. But can the lack of a dining partner also increase the risk of these conditions?
According to a new study, eating alone may contribute to an increased risk of heart disease in especially older women. The findings were published this week in Menopause, the journal of The North American Menopause Society (NAMS).
Recent changes in society have meant that more people than ever are eating alone. One of the primary reasons is a rise in the number of single-person households.
Social distancing protocols in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, have further restricted eating meals with others. Additionally, mobile platforms for food delivery services have become more popular, further motivating people to eat alone.
Older women at risk
As women age, their risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) exceeds men’s, largely because of decreased levels of oestrogen that regulate vascular function.
Dr Stephanie Faubion, the medical director of NAMS, says: “This study shows that older women who eat alone are more likely to have symptomatic heart disease. They are also more likely to be widowed and to have lower incomes and poorer nutritional intake.”
As part of the overall effort to reduce the incidence of CVD, there has been a growing awareness of healthy eating habits. However, the importance of having an eating companion has been largely overlooked in previous studies.
These results are not surprising, given that lower socio-economic status and social isolation contribute to lower quality of life, greater rates of depression and poorer health, Faubion explains.
With more people eating alone, health concerns have been raised. A previous study reported that a higher frequency of eating alone is associated with a higher risk of obesity and elevated blood pressure.
When eating alone, people tend to eat faster, which often leads to increases in body mass index, waist circumference, blood pressure and blood lipid levels. All of which can increase the risk of metabolic syndrome and CVD.
Eating alone also can affect mental health and has been reported as a risk factor for depression, which is also linked with an increased risk of CVD.
It leads to poor nutrition
Although these findings suggest that eating alone is a risk factor for CVD in older women, few studies investigated the relationship between eating alone and the prevalence of CVD.
Researchers in this study involved nearly 600 menopausal women aged older than 65 years and sought to compare health behaviours and nutritional status between older women eating alone and those eating with others. They also wanted to investigate the relationship between eating alone and the prevalence of CVD and its risk factors in older women.
They concluded that older women who ate alone had poorer nutritional knowledge and intake.
More specifically, they found that older women who ate alone had lower intakes of energy, carbohydrates, dietary fibre, sodium and potassium that those who ate with others.
In addition, older women eating alone were 2.58 times more likely to have angina, a type of chest pain caused by reduced blood flow to the heart and a symptom of coronary artery disease. These results suggest the value of nutrition education and CVD screening for older women who mainly eat alone.
“Given that women live longer than men, finding ways for older women who are socially isolated to engage and create meaningful social ties may not only improve their nutrition, but also their overall health while simultaneously reducing healthcare costs,” Faubion says.