There’s a popular book called “The Blue Zones” (National Geographic Society, 2012) that examines the diets of people around the world who live the longest. It’s an excellent dive into the role of food and nutrition for longevity and disease prevention and it provides even more evidence on the importance of legume and vegetable consumption. But the author, in his research, came across other common practices between the population groups living in the ‘blue zones’ that may also influence long-term health: social engagement. And it’s not surprising that a long, healthy life is, at least partly, attributed to being part of a community.
The Background. Many factors affect our food preferences, in part because food is and always has been socially and culturally impacted. One does not need to be an anthropologist studying ancient cultures to appreciate the ritualistic aspects surrounding food, from planting and harvesting to eating and celebrating. Humans today still practice these rituals, though some more than others as traditional family groups are more likely to be spread across great distances. When discussing major holidays, it’s common to hear responses about the importance of having the entire family together at the dining table and the love of sharing food.
The Benefits. This practice of sharing meals and eating together does not, and should not, be limited to holidays because it can have a direct impact on our mental health. When working with a cohort of about 8,000 participants aged 60 and older, researchers in China found an inverse association between the number of companions at mealtime and geriatric depressive symptoms. In other words, those who ate in groups were less likely to have symptoms of depression. They also analyzed the habits of people who, although they lived with others, ate alone and this sub-group had an increased odds of depressive symptoms. According to their results, companionship during meals may have even greater health benefits than general non-meal companionship.
We don’t have to wait until our family members are old to invite them to share meals with us; we can start building those habits now. One way is to involve children, as well as all other household members, in the shopping and cooking processes. Plus, children are more likely to eat healthy and new foods when they are involved. Aim to make most dinners at home a sit-down, must-attend affair with no phones or tablets allowed at the table. The families in the blue zones, two of which are unsurprisingly in the Mediterranean, take meal time very seriously and it is a long, family affair. Eating slower, in good company, may also help people to eat less which may have implications for weight management.
The Bottom Line. The food choices we make impact not only our physiological health but our mental health too. We should pay attention not only to the foods we eat, but also who we eat them with. So, there’s no need to wait until this Thanksgiving to share a good meal; invite some friends and family over for a home-cooked dinner that is best enjoyed with good company.
—Matt Ruscigno, MPH, RD