The updated version of Canada’s Food Guide incorporates a section pertaining to healthy eating habits, listing “involve others in planning and preparing meals” and “eat meals with others” as behaviours to integrate into your diet. Benefits of such communal experiences include learning new skills, implementing healthy foods, and spending quality time together.
Released on January 28, the updates to the guide come after a Canadian Press article tells the story of Flo Elliot, an elderly woman who lost her appetite after her husband passed away.
However, the association between loneliness and poor nutrition is not an uncommon finding. Social context and other individuals are influential to our eating habits. Evidence of this is reflected in our altered family relationships.
Due to location differences, increased screen time, variable schedules, and other external factors, families find themselves not spending enough time eating together. “Over the last several generations, we’ve seen [that] family units are not as tight knitted as they used to be,” said Dr. Carol Greenwood, Professor Emeritus of U of T’s Department of Nutritional Sciences.
A consequence of unhealthy eating is malnutrition, which can lead to fatigue, a lack of concentration, and depression, among other things. In general, Greenwood recommends social eating, “whether it’s through joining a community club or taking the initiative of having a group of friends where you share meals.”
However, there are many factors contributing to social isolation and loneliness when eating, such as mental illness, mobility issues, or poverty.
In particular, vulnerable populations include those diagnosed with depression. Clinical depression is highly prevalent, affecting about 4.7 per cent of Canadians aged 15 and older.
In fact, an alteration of eating habits is so symptomatic of depression that there is an association between depressive symptoms and emotional eating, whether in a loss of appetite or a spike in it.
Another study found that social isolation when eating is a risk factor for depression. This is important as “it really becomes a little bit more reliant on the individual to recognize the need to maintain some sort of a social structure and to be able to initiate that. So as people become more and more isolated, the initiation becomes more and more challenging,” said Greenwood.
Isolation and malnutrition is also apparent in older populations. In 2015, the Canadian Malnutrition Task Force found that 45 per cent of adults around 50 and older who were admitted to hospital were malnourished. Researchers have also found that social isolation and loneliness are two factors contributing to malnutrition in the elderly population.
Greenwood suggests that families and areas with elderly members “look for community centres that will attract older adults to come so they can maintain that social network.”
“A healthy pattern of eating, irrespective of age, I think is exactly what we need,” said Greenwood. “It is important for the village to really look out for one another.”