Why Eating Together Improves Our Mental Health

Family eating together, having breakfast in kitchenIt has long been said that it is important for families to eat dinner together.  In our fast-paced, activity packed lifestyles this has become increasing more difficult.  We have so many things competing with dinner time that getting everyone together seems laughable.   A few years ago, our family gradually stopped eating dinner together regularly.  I was in grad school a couple of evenings every week and my children had swim practice every evening.  This made it really hard to get everyone to the table at the same time to share a meal.  The fast-food, on the go way of eating took a toll on our physical health, financial health, and family connection. In fact, if you find yourself pulling through your local fast-food drive up window more  than you would care to admit, you aren't alone.  Studies show that  20% of meals are eaten in the car and 25% of people in America eat at least one fast-food meal each day.  These take a larger toll on us than just the toll on our physical health. My goal in this article is to point out the benefits of eating meals together from a mental health standpoint.  Here are some therapeutic reasons why we should make it a priority to not eat alone: 1.  Community - As people share meals together they share customs of their culture and their heritage.  Oftentimes, stories are shared over a meal that connect people with each other's worlds.  One study suggests that children are more apt to know about their family history as a result of sharing meals.  These same children were shown to have closer relationships with family members, increased self-esteem, and more sense of control over their own lives (Duke, Fivush, Lazarus, & Bohanek, 2003). Sharing a meal together has also been shown to increase the secretion of oxytocin, more commonly referred to as "the love hormone" or the "cuddle hormone".  This hormone, when secreted, increases feelings of love and closeness between humans.  So, eating together causes a physiological response that draws people  to one another.  The release of oxytocin is known to aid in the digestion of foods as well! 2.  Emotional Intelligence - Neurobiological research has shown that the secretion of oxytocin affects the regulation of the limbic system, which is the part of our brain that controls emotion.  When two people interact with one another, something happens in the brain which Allan Schore refers to as co-regulation.  The hormones that are released affect the expression of genes contributing to the development of empathy and control of aggression.  The neurons that are activated when we interact with others are referred to as mirror neurons.  This explains why we feel the pain of others. When we choose to bond together over a meal with another person, we are making key connections in our brain that help us regulate our emotion. 3.  Decreased Risk of Substance Abuse in Teens - There is a widely cited study done by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Colombia University.  Their 2012 findings revealed that in families who ate five to seven meals together each week, teens were less likely to engage in use of marijuana, alcohol, and tobacco than families who ate fewer than three meals per week together.  The findings of the study can be seen on their 2012 Family Dinner Report. 4.  It Promotes Mindful Eating - When we take time to sit down at a table and engage in conversation with others, we pay more attention to what we are eating.  The sights, smells, and tastes are heightened.  Studies have shown that mindful eating reduces the risk of overeating which reduces the risk for health issues such as diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. 5.  An Increase in Thankfulness or Gratitude - it is fitting that we celebrate the day of giving thanks with a meal.  As we reflect on our day and share its happenings with others, we can recount the simple things for which we are grateful.  Consider the Christian tradition of taking communion.  The communion meal is a meal shared by believers to reflect on the sacrifice that was made by Jesus on their behalf.  It is a time to express gratitude toward God for his provision of salvation for his people.  Meal time can mirror that sentiment if we choose to slow down and relax and be grateful for what we have.  As mentioned in an earlier post, gratitude can help us create an attitude of abundance that has other benefits for our well-being. What steps can you take today to make family meal-time more of a priority for YOUR family? Stay tuned for my next post which will give some practical tips for improving your family dinner time. References: Duke, M..P., Fivush, R., Lazarus, A., Bohanek, J. (2003).  Of ketchup and kin: Dinnertime conversations as a major source of family knowledge, family adjustment, and family resilience.  The Emory Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life, Emory University.