You are what you eat -- but apparently, who you eat with is pretty important too. Research shows that eating alone means eating a less nutritious diet, especially for those over 50.
The European Prospective Investigation of Cancer (EPIC Norfolk) has shown that loneliness and social isolation have a harmful impact on the eating habits of older adults. Started in 1993, the study followed 25,000 people between the ages of 40 and 80 in Europe over the past 20 years. Researchers looked at how diet and lifestyle affect the onset of chronic diseases including diabetes and cancer.
Older adults that were single ate 2.3 fewer vegetable servings per day, and widows or widowers living alone ate 1.1 fewer vegetables servings per day than their married or cohabiting counterparts. Widows and widowers living with someone, however, ate just as many vegetables as married or cohabiting people -- highlighting the importance of social interaction.
Vegetables are essential to any diet. They provide key nutrients that can reduce the risk of a wide range of health problems including type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
"People's diet is not fixed, it changes over time. Furthermore, the ability to eat healthily is influenced by a person's social environment, including factors like marriage, cohabitation, friendships and general social interacting. As people age, they are less likely to eat well -- and when older people are living alone their diet often suffers," says social epidemiology researcher, Annalijn Conklin, in a release.
An estimated 19 percent of men and around 37 percent of women over 65 live alone, according to the National Institute on Aging, a number rising in the last 40 years.
Researchers say this phenomenon means a growing need for concern as the population of aging people rises. In the U.S., the number of people over 65 will more than double what it was in 2000, to nearly 80 million, the Administration on Aging estimates.
The UK-based Campaign to End Loneliness says loneliness affects overall health as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and is worse for you than other health risk factors like drinking and lack of exercise. Lonely people are more likely to suffer from dementia, depression, and cognitive decline.
The good news in all of this is improving the social ties of older adults can potentially improve not only their physical health but their emotional well-being. Since post 50s are more likely than any other group to lose relationships due to divorce or death, researchers say it's important for communities to provide more social opportunities for aging populations.