Monday, October 17, 2011

Eating alone

Because I am responsible for some research at the University of Western Sydney, 2-3 times a year I fly 4000 km to Sydney, then catch a train out to Parramatta in the deep western suburbs of the city. On arrival I dump my kit and head down to the sushi bar or Vietnamese restaurant for dinner. I sit there on my lonesome, eat and read (see pic).

I get sad looks and people comment that they hope to never end up like me, you know, kicked out of home, no friends, a person of interest to the local police.

Read, listen, type
Past research suggests that if you eat with friends then you are likely to eat more food, probably because you chat longer, drink more and eating is a social occasion so why not enjoy a second helping or some dessert? How much more? I’ve seen research ranging from 25% more to 100% more.

Research from the 1990s also found that lone diners who read seemed to stay at the meal table for longer. They didn’t record how much was eaten.

A study conducted in South Australia wanted to see if more food was eaten when someone ate alone while reading, listening to an ipod or using a laptop at the table. These people were labeled with the crushing expression “without social interaction”.

30 minutes
The observations were done at McDonalds in Adelaide because a Maccas menu is standardised and it easier to determine how much is eaten than at my sushi bar. Someone secretly watched all diners and recorded 141 people having no social interaction. They couldn’t include drinks because a secret observer can’t tell the difference between diet or regular drinks. The meals chosen by the observed lasted from 2-44 minutes, with half an hour being the average.

Music, typing, books didn’t increase eating
If you read, typed or tuned into your own music then you stayed longer, especially if you read. Thankfully, reading didn’t mean that you ate more. You spent twice as long at the table, but you didn’t eat more. Only one of those 141 diners went back for extra food. The researchers speculated that eating with others stimulated other social eating dimensions encouraging people to eat more; the mere presence of food didn’t drive people to over-eat. Reading while eating may have done no more than to reduce the discomfort of eating alone.

What does it all mean?
If you find yourself eating alone and happy to catch up on emails, tweet, read a novel or chill to some garage rock (my favourite) then ignore the looks of those thinking that you are tomorrow’s front page news. Just choose your meal wisely and enjoy it. It’s unlikely you are going to overdo it.

Every now and again have a look around. That dodgy bloke in the corner with the note pad and the camera stuffed under the jacket could be from the local university. Pop over and tell them that laptopping, ipodding and reading is a form of social interaction; just because I’m not talking doesn’t mean I ain’t interacting with society. Hey, aren’t I interacting with you right now? Hope you’ve enjoyed it as much as I have. Seriously.

Reference:  Appetite 2011; 57: 77-79

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