Living Alone Encourages Unhealthy Eating

Young woman eating a hamburger

If you’re single, you’re probably very familiar with the benefits and drawbacks of living alone. While it’s nice to have your own space without the annoyances of having another person around, living by yourself can also be lonely. New research out this week has found that living alone can bring with it more than just an occasional case of the blues. Those without partners may also find it tough to stick to a healthier diet and may be more likely to leave out key nutrients when making decisions about what and what not to eat.

How does living alone affect your health?

The number of people living alone has increased over the last several decades and, in 2010, about one in every four households in the U.S. were one-person households. While living alone might seem to just be a side effect of personal choice, similar to a job or whether or not you have pets, studies in the past have shown that living alone may also portend worse health. Those living alone have a higher risk of diabetes, dangerous falls, functional difficulties, social isolation, and death. While these are just associations, meaning living by yourself isn’t necessarily the cause of these health problems, they point to the fact that people who are more isolated also tend to be less healthy. This research group hoped to get a better sense of why that worse health might exist.

How do eating habits factor in?

Several psychological studies have found that people living in isolation tend to struggle more with money and have a harder time overall in their day-to-day lives. At least one study has found that this isolation appeared to affect the way that older adults ate. Specifically, those who lived alone, who were widowed, or who were socially isolated tended to eat less, which could also mean they didn’t eat as well as their more social counterparts. The researchers hypothesized that this decreased drive to eat might be an indication of worse eating habits overall, which might then translate into worse health if a person wasn’t getting the nutrients they needed. When they went to look for studies to that effect, they didn’t find any. It was with the hope of figuring out how loneliness might affect diet that they embarked on this study.

What did the researchers find?

Performing a meta-analysis of 41 past studies, the researchers found that the range of ages, genders, races and incomes of people who live alone is broad and diverse, which made the reasons they chose to live alone similarly broad. Younger people might live alone because they had moved out to find a job while older adults might live alone because their spouse died several years before. In many cases, though, there were possible reasons a person in any of these given situations might not be eating as well as they should. The team found that people who live alone often lose motivation to cook “just for themselves” and often lose the enjoyment they may have found in cooking. That can then lead to more ready-made meals or dinners ordered in, both of which have been shown many times to be far less healthy and nutrient-rich than home-cooked meals.

Older adults may also struggle with the cooking skills needed to make meals at home if the person who typically cooked moved out during a divorce or passed away. Some older adults noted that it could even be a struggle to bring groceries back home if you’re just one person carrying many bags. On top of that, people who live alone may have a higher cost of living and often have no one to split fresh foods with that often spoil if not eaten fast enough. That can mean less fruit, vegetables, and fish, which tend to go bad more quickly.

Another problem is that those who live alone often lose the sense of what constitutes a proper meal. Without someone else to judge a bag of chips or bowl of cereal as an inadequate meal, those living in isolation sometimes drift into insufficient eating that doesn’t come close to covering what they really need. On the other hand, some people living alone tend to overeat and use their relationship with food to replace missing social relationships. That can lead to obesity, which brings with it a whole host of health issues.

Were there any benefits to living alone?

The overall doom and gloom of living alone was brightened by a few caveats. First, those living alone tend to enjoy being independent and autonomous, which means some may also feel more of a reward once they figure out how to be autonomous when it comes to food as well. They may also be more motivated to try and eat better once they learn how. They also don’t have to worry about the tastes of another person, which can make dining options more flexible and can also make it easier to make diet changes.

How does this apply to me?

If you live alone, it might be time to have a hard look at your eating habits and ask if you’re getting everything you need in your meals. If your diet consists mostly of pre-made meals or restaurant fare, it’s probably time to rethink your dining habits. Get some pointers from your doctor about which nutrient-rich foods keep well and are also tasty. Finally, think of looking for a cooking class that might help you come up with some quick and easy recipes that you can whip up in a snap even when you don’t feel much like cooking.