Eat with Others, Eat Less


Part 6 of 10

By Deborah Kesten and Larry Scherwitz


0ne of our most memorable meals wasn’t an actual meal; it was a dining experience cradled in hospitality, friendship, and fresh, simple food. The place: the patio of a friend’s villa in a medieval town in Switzerland. The time: nearing midnight. The setting: like a Turner painting, an almost-full moon lighting the nearby lake. The food: an assortment of Italian cheeses, apples and oranges, and rich red wine. The social ingredients: the two of us, friends, and our hostess, Frau Bucher. As the evening evolved, so too did our sense of appreciation for the food and friendship and a welcoming and memorable dining experience for all.


Fare for One

We were reminded of this special evening when our research revealed Solo Dining as yet another overeating style that significantly increases the odds of weight gain. In place of friendship-filled fare, more often than not, an eat-alone dining scene plays out daily for millions of Americans: Many children reach for a piece of packaged pizza, then eat it at the computer; single working women may heat up their low-cal frozen meal in the microwave, then dine solo while watching TV; and anxious traveling salesmen may be driven to dashboard dining while en route to yet another meeting.

Not only does our research shed light on the social isolation that often surrounds food and dining, but it also links it with the increased likelihood of being overweight. The more often people dine alone, we found, the higher their body mass index (BMI, the measure of body fat based on height and weight). In contrast, normal-weight people typically eat with others—and they are more likely to eat wholesome fresh food and less fast, processed food. This is a sobering observation, because it suggests that chronic social isolation—especially while dining—increases the probability that you’ll not only overeat but also eat more of the kinds of food that can easily add pounds.

Why might lack of social support—especially while eating—make you more prone to overeat and be overweight; even susceptible to other chronic conditions? A unique study, with completely unexpected findings—offers some clues.


Social Ties

The idea that eating in a socially supportive atmosphere can serve as a buffer against ailments emerged in a landmark twenty-five-year study that began in the early 1960s in the small town of Roseto, Pennsylvania, when a local physician told researcher Stewart Wolf that he rarely saw cases of heart disease in the town’s Italian-American population. Intrigued, Wolf set out to study the Rosetans, hoping to discover why their rate of heart disease was so low. Even though they consumed a traditional high-fat, high-cholesterol Italian-American diet of sauces, sausages, and other food deemed to be artery-clogging, the rate of heart disease and mortality from heart attacks remained low in Roseto.

As the long-term study progressed, so did the rate of heart disease among the Italian-Americans—so much so that it soon equaled that of the general American population. When Wolf and his colleagues scrutinized the data, the main difference that surfaced was the change in human relationships. When the study started, close family ties and community cohesion were the norm; it was common to find three generations living together in one home. But as the children became adults, they moved away from Roseto. Over time, family and community cohesion began to weaken, along with commitment to religion, relationships, and traditional values. The close-knit way of life that had united Rosetans since their migration to Roseto had first migrated to America in 1882 had ended—along with its prophylactic effect on heart disease.

Although the Roseto study explores the shift in heart disease of an Italian-American community over a quarter century, it is also about the influence of human relationships and social support on the metabolism of high-fat, high-cholesterol, calorie-dense foods. Amazingly, this study suggests that when social support is present in our lives, especially when we eat, what we eat is somehow metabolized differently. Is it really possible that social support can halt heart disease even when we consume foods perceived as not being heart healthy? Research results on the people of Roseto seemed to have anticipated future studies that would serendipitously link dining with others to similar benefits.


Care-Filled Feeding

Not too long after the Roseto study, researcher Robert M. Nerem at Emory University School of Medicine also discovered an invisible healing web connecting relationships and the metabolism of potentially artery-clogging food. When Nerem set out to learn about the effect diet has on the development of coronary artery disease (CAD), a research assistant on his team fed high-cholesterol bits of rabbit chow to caged rabbits. When it was time to tally the results, team members were confounded: though all the rabbits were fed the same artery-clogging food, some of them had 60 percent less plaque (blockage) in their arteries.

Unable to understand why some rabbits showed early signs of heart disease and others didn’t, Nerem and his team retraced each step of the study. Once again, the rabbits in the middle tier of cages fared better than those in the lower and higher rungs. Upon closer scrutiny, they realized that it was the rabbits in the middle that the research assistant would take out of their cages to hold, pet, talk to, and play with during feeding. It was harder for the petite assistant to reach the rabbits in the higher and lower tiers, but those in the middle received their food while being held.

Amazed, the scientists repeated the study under much more measured conditions. This time, some rabbits would be fed the high-cholesterol diet while being individually held on a regular basis, while those in the control group would be fed the same diet and be given normal laboratory animal care but wouldn’t be personally nurtured while being fed. Again, the cared-for rabbits showed more than a 60 percent reduction in lesions compared to the comparison group, even though the serum cholesterol levels, heart rate, and blood pressure of all the rabbits were similar.2

Both the Roseto and the rabbit studies imply that there’s a mystery to how we metabolize food, and that the “social consciousness” we bring to meals matters. As physician Deepak Chopra said in describing just how powerful invisible nutrients such as social support can be to our well-being: “When you look at nutrition from a purely scientific point of view, there is no place for consciousness. And yet, consciousness could be one of the crucial determinants of the metabolism of food itself.”3


Recipes for Social Satisfaction

Imagine! Without drugs or surgery or any special diet, you have the power to activate the mystery of social support and influence the way you metabolize food—and potentially your waistline and health—simply by dining in the company of others. What follows are suggestions for starting your own social nutrition traditions—and for turning a table for one into a table for two, three, or more.

• Start a cooking club. Invite coworkers, friends, and community members with whom you interact—a librarian, neighbors—to be part of your club. Rotate meals at the homes of members. Share meal memories and stories as you dine.

• Launch a family tradition by inviting one or more family members over to enjoy a meal made using a recipe from an older member of your family—perhaps an aunt or uncle, parent, or cousin. Set a glowing table with special ware.

• If you live alone, consider placing a picture of a family- or friendship-filled meal on the table as you eat. If your mother used to make a special meal that you particularly enjoyed, make it for yourself on a weekend and freeze it, then let it defrost while you’re at work one day so you can enjoy it when you get home—reflecting on meals with your mom, family, or friends as you eat.


Eat with Others, Eat Less

The antidote to the solo dining eating style? As often as possible, enjoy a fresh meal or snack with coworkers, family, or friends. The solution looks like this:

Step #6: Reset the American table: Share food-related experiences with others.

As simple as the solution to the solo dining eating style may seem, we know it can be a challenge to implement, given the demands of busy schedules and cell phones, pagers, and e-mail that can keep us on call twenty-four hours a day. But you’ll find the rewards well worth the effort.


  1. Julie Stewart Wolf and John G. Bruhn, The Power of Clan: The Influence of Human Relationships on Heart Disease (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1993).
  2. Robert M. Nerem, Murina J. Levesque, and J. Fredrick Cornhill, “Social Environment as a Factor in Diet-Induced Atherosclerosis,” Science New Series 208, no. 4451 (1980): 1475–76.
  3. Deepak Chopra, Body, Mind and Soul, PBS, KQED-TV, San Francisco, March 7, 1995.



Visit our free Whole Person Nutrition Program for more about what and how to eat to be a successful loser. It’s filled with practical guidelines, menu plans, recipes, and more.

“Step #1: Lose Weight Without Dieting”
“Step #2: Overcoming Emotional Eating”
“Step #3: Eat Fresh, Weigh Less”
“Step #4: The Weight Loss Power of Mindfulness”
“Step #5: Nourish Your Senses, Lose Weight”

“The Healing Secret of Socializing” in The Healing Secrets of Food
“The Healing Secret of Mindfulness” in The Healing Secrets of Food
“Enjoy Food with Others” in Make Weight Loss Last
“Focus on Food” in Make Weight Loss Last

“Get Fresh” in Make Weight Loss Last
“Access Your Appetite” in Make Weight Loss Last
“Jettison Judgment” in Make Weight Loss Last


Next post:

Think outside the diet to make weight loss last with Step #7 of our BE A SUCCESSFUL LOSER series, “Stress More, Eat More” posted on our NewView blog.

You’ll get plenty of clarity about what’s true and useful—or not—by keeping up with nutritionist Deborah Kesten, MPH, and research scientist Larry Scherwitz, PhD, the writers of this post, by liking them on Facebookfollowing them on Twitter, or sending us an email.

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