Better than Drugs: Mood-Altering Effects of Eating with Others


If you’re down in the dumps and the highlight of your day is to reach for the bottle, consider calling up a friend to grab some grub instead.  Or even better, make a meal together.  There is a body of research that suggests eating with others is associated with decreased depression and obesity.  This association is commonly found among both adolescents and elderly.  Fulkerson et al, showed that in a racially diverse population of 145 adolescents, increased family dinner frequency is associated with decreased depression, increased breakfast intake, and decreased obesity (1).  In an even bigger study of 856 Japanese elderly, Kimura, et al., found that the 33% of the these people who ate alone were more depressed, less happy, ate a smaller diversity of food, and had decreased body mass index (2).  Eating with people helped elderly have better access to nutrients in this study.

Studies also show that who you eat with influences your choice of foods and your choice of foods determines what others eat. (3, 4)  What better way to keep each other accountable for our well-being?  By making good choices on what we eat, we automatically influence the health of those who are near and dear to us.

Eating healthily is more holistic than just making sure you have the right amount of vitamins and minerals (calcium, chromium, folate, iron, magnesium, omega 3s, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, vitamin D, and zinc all play a role in stabilizing mood).  It’s more than counting your calories, grams of protein, grams of fiber, and reading package labels.  It’s more than avoiding processed foods and alcohol.  No amount of Prozac, Celexa, Zoloft, Wellbutrin, Trazodone, Cymbalta, Lexapro, or Paxil, or St. John’s Wort, Lavender, Valerian, or Schizandra–pick your drug–can replace the vitality in good food and most of all good company.  Eating a high quality whole foods diet can help with keeping a healthy weight and stabilizing mood.  One of the secrets of good health lies in how and what we eat.  Mind and body are exquisitely related.  When your body starts to deteriorate, your mind is affected, and often your mood gets affected.  Obesity is clearly associated with depression, and depression is a predictor of becoming obese (5).  It’s no wonder that all the studies on eating together produce measurable outcomes for depression and obesity.

It’s not easy to change eating habits.  Here are some ideas for making eating with others easier:

Make dinner together.  Making dinner together opens up a world of food to explore.  You start to understand another person’s food preferences and diet restrictions.  You learn more about different flavors you would not have known.  You get to explore ingredient substitutions for diet restrictions that exist.  The intimidating recipe you were hesitant to try, suddenly becomes easier to conquer with an accomplice.  Basically, you become a better cook.

Put mealtimes on a calendar.  With busy work schedules, or raising a family, sometimes you have to pencil it in.  Make a day of the week, month, or year a special mealtime with a particular individual.  You don’t have to go crazy with this, Leslie Knope style.  In my first year of college, I had breakfast with my besties every day of the week, 6:30am sharp.  And in my last year of college, I had dinner with my sister every Thursday night, and then we would watch Project Runway.  It was the best!  Not only do I have great memories about those times, each of those memories are laced with food!

Make mealtimes a ritual.  Whether you’re setting an intention for the day or summarizing and reflecting upon the events of the day, mealtimes are a great time to create a ritual.  A ritual consists of a series of actions done with some meaning.  During a meal, people you care about can be important sounding boards for mundane or agonizing thoughts.  It sets a rhythm to the day.  Structure is sometimes underrated.

Make meals for a community.  In my last year of college, me and my best friends also held vegetarian potlucks every Friday at our house.  Sometimes, you couldn’t see the floor because there were so many people sitting down and eating together.  There wasn’t any wild party or even a good band playing (though now that I think of it, that would have been awesome)–just people gathered together to eat.  Food brings all kinds of people together.  If you’re new to a town, there are many communities that offer community meals like the Friends of Moreau State Park Chili dinner, or make your own potluck and invite the town.

Eat with people you love.  My last year of medical school definitely (Can I be blunt?) “tore me a new one.” I couldn’t have survived without many meals of pho and sushi with my best friends and esteemed colleagues.  We even managed to cook together when we weren’t busy…or procrastinating.

A table cloth that’s slightly soiled
Where greasy little hands have toiled;
The napkins kept in silver rings,
And only ordinary things
From which to eat, a simple fare,
And just the wife and kiddies there,
And while I serve, the clatter glad
Of little girl and little lad
Who have so very much to say
About the happenings of the day.

(Taken from The Perfect Dinner Table by Edgar Albert Guest)

Food is one of the most enjoyable things about life.  It is worth sharing.

(1) Fulkerson JA, Kubik MY, Story M, Lytle L, Arcan C.  Are there nutritional and other benefits associated with family meals among at-risk youth?  J Adolesc Health. 2009 Oct;45(4):389-95. doi: 10.1016/j.jadohealth.2009.02.011. Epub 2009 May 28.

(2) Kimura Y, Wada T, Okumiya K, Ishimoto Y, Fukutomi E, Kasahara Y, Chen W, Sakamoto R, Fujisawa M, Otsuka K, Matsubayashi K.  Eating alone among community-dwelling Japanese elderly: association with depression and food diversity. J Nutr Health Aging. 2012 Aug;16(8):728-31. doi: 10.1007/s12603-012-0067-3.

(3) Dabbaghian V, Mago VK, Wu T, Fritz C, Alimadad A.  Social interactions of eating behaviour among high school students: a cellular automata approach. BMC Med Res Methodol. 2012 Oct 9;12:155. doi: 10.1186/1471-2288-12-155.

(4) Paquet C, St-Arnaud-McKenzie D, Ma Z, Kergoat MJ, Ferland G, Dubé L. More than just not being alone: the number, nature, and complementarity of meal-time social interactions influence food intake in hospitalized elderly patients. Gerontologist. 2008 Oct;48(5):603-11.

(5) Luppino FS, de Wit LM, Bouvy PF, Stijnen T, Cuijpers P, Penninx BW, Zitman FG. Overweight, obesity, and depression: a systematic review and meta-analysis of longitudinal studies. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2010 Mar;67(3):220-9. doi: 10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2010.2.

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