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What’s the Deal?

Most of us have had a romantic dinner for two before — with our smartphones. Surfing the Web on an iPhone during suppertime isn’t as uncommon as Emily Post would hope, as evidenced by the new Anti-Loneliness Ramen Bowl by Japanese company MisoSoupDesign. The noodle bowl, which will be available this spring (price TBD), has a built-in iPod dock to make browsing while slurping even easier for multitaskers.

As clever (and let’s be honest, convenient) as this invention is, it’s a bit depressing, too. Everyone eats alone from time to time, but the iPod-powered soup bowl points out how socially acceptable it has become to make mealtime another opportunity for screen time.

Why It Matters

Turns out there’s a lot of research that suggests zoning out at the table can adversely affect health. Anyone who’s methodically demolished a family-size bag of chips during an especially riveting episode of Grey’s Anatomy knows that watching TV while eating can lead to bad food choices and mindless overeating. In fact, bad mealtime habits can even affect how we eat later in life. One study found teenagers who snacked while watching T.V. ate higher-calorie food and less fruit a few years laterMediators of longitudinal associations between television viewing and eating behaviours in adolescents. Pearson, N., Ball, K., Crawford, D. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity. March 30, 2011..

The issue may be that we’re paying more attention to Dr. McDreamy than what’s going into our mouths. Memory is a huge factor in managing hunger and satiety, so spending a meal playing JewelQuest isn’t a great way to stay mindful while eating. In a recent study, soup-slurpers who believedthey ate more (regardless of real portion size) stayed fuller longer than those who thought they ate lessEpisodic memory and appetite regulation in humans. Brunstrom JM, Burn JF, Sell NR, Collingwood JM, Rogers PJ, Wilkinson LL, Hinton EC, Mayard OM, Ferriday D. Nutrition and Behaviour Unit, School of Experimental Psychology, University of Bristol, Bristol, UK. PLoS One. 2012; 7(12): e50707..

Taking time away from screens isn’t just about calories and serving sizes, though. It can make us smarter, happier, and healthier. One study found that 9-to-5ers who powered down their computers and lunched with coworkers had better cognitive functioning (aka brainpower) than those who ate in front of the computerMental exercising through simple socializing: social interaction promotes general cognitive functioning. Ybarra O, Burnstein E, Winkielman P, Keller MC, Manis M, Chan E, Rodriguez J. Department of Psychology, Research Center for Group Dynamics, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, USA. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 2008 February; 34(2):248-59..

It’s worth noting, too, that eating alone can adversely affect anyone, regardless of age. A Japanese study found that elderly folks who dined solo were more likely to be depressed than those who ate with family and friendsEating alone among community-dwelling Japanese elderly: association with depression and food diversity. Kimura Y, Wada T, Okumiya K, Ishimoto Y, Fukutomi E, Kasahara Y, Chen W, Sakamoto R, Fujisawa M, Otsuka K, Matsubayashi K. Department of Field Medicine, School of Public Health, Kyoto University, Kyoto, Japan. The Journal of Nutrition Health and Aging. 2012 August; 16(8):728-31.. And teenagers who sat down at the family dinner table were less likely to be stressed out, suffer from eating disorders, and use alcohol, drugs, and tobacco.What mediates the relationship between family meals and adolescent health issues? Franko DL, Thompson D, Affenito SG, Barton BA, Striegel-Moore RH. Department of Counseling and Applied Educational Psychology, Northeastern University, Boston, MA, USA. Health Psychology. 2008 March;27(2 Suppl):S109-17. Numerous studies have found that children and adolescents who eat with at home with family are less likely to be depressed or overweight.

Of course, eating alone isn’t the only reason for mental health issues, and making time for family dinner doesn’t solve every problem, but shared meals definitely help develop strong, supportive relationships.

Is It Legit?

Sort of, not really. While the Anti-Loneliness Ramen Bowl can help prevent the dreaded food-covered iPhone, it probably won’t do much to hinder sadness. By facilitating antisocial behavior at the dinner table, this new invention might actually make people more bummed. Sharing a meal with buddies or family members is a health and happiness one-two double punch — real-time social interactions boost the mood, while taking time to chat can make people eat less overall. No one can be a social butterfly all the time, though. When grabbing a quick bite alone, take some time to daydream or think about the meal at hand. While that sleekly designed ramen bowl might be great for solo meals, it’s better for physical and mental health to keep it old-school at the dinner table.

Do you noodle around on your iPhone while eating noodles? Tell us your solo mealtime strategies in the comments below or tweet the author @SophBreene.