It's a familiar picture: People eating while talking on the phone, reading emails, staring at computer screens, hurrying from appointment to appointment. Our hectic lifestyles rarely allow for lunch breaks exclusively dedicated to nourishment or sit-down dinners to reconnect with loved ones.
Nearly half of all adults in America now eat most of their meals alone, according to a new survey by the Hartman Group, a marketing research firm that specializes in consumer culture. "In fact, 46 percent of all adults eating occasions happen alone, with nobody else present; 40 percent of all adult meals (not just snacks) are eaten alone; and 51 percent of all adult snacking is done alone," it says in the report.
The changes in eating habits are most obvious in the workplace where long, uninterrupted working hours have become the norm rather than the exception. But also, hard-to-coordinate family schedules are impacting the way we used to have our meals at home, says Laurie Demeritt, the Hartman Group's president.
Although it's now more common than ever, the trend toward eating solo began a long time ago. As women joined the workforce in great numbers after World War II, preparing elaborate meals at home became less attractive, even as modern kitchen appliances eased the task. The ability to eat out or pick up frozen dinners offered much-welcomed relief.
Today, we have what Demeritt calls the "snackification of meals," where frequent eating of snack items and smaller dishes has taken the place of the traditional three-meals-a-day pattern. Consumers are looking for flexible meal schedules that fit their demanding lifestyles. Oftentimes, this is only feasible when they eat by themselves.
While eating without company is not necessarily a bad thing and can from time to time be quite enjoyable, there are certain downsides. When you're all by yourself, nobody will judge you, your table manners, your food choices or your portion sizes. You can focus on your meal or do a thousand other things at the same time. But that's where it can get tricky, according to Brian Wansink, author of Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think (Bantam, 2006). If you are not paying attention or there is no one else to give you any cues about your eating behavior, you may end up overdoing it -- and gain weight in the process, he says.
To be sure, not all snacking, even if it occurs frequently, is automatically unhealthy. The trick is to stay away from the salty, sugary and highly processed items that unfortunately dominate the snack-food sections from supermarkets to gas stations. And as with all foods, moderation is key.
And what about the social interactions solitary eaters miss out on? "Some of us love eating alone," says Diane Shipley, who writes for the British paper The Guardian. Eating alone should not make you feel awkward, not even as a woman going on her own to a bar or a restaurant or when travelling, she says. "Spending time with someone whom you have little in common with can feel far more alienating than being alone."
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