The future of eating - together or apart?

The British diet is not well. The numbers of overweight and obese people are steadily climbing. The government's 2007 Foresight report on obesity indicated that more than half of the UK adult population could be obese by 2050. Worse still, overweight children are more and more common (and we are still awaiting the Government’s childhood obesity strategy). This could be the first generation of children outlived by their parents. We are losing the ability to identify what a so-called normal weight looks like. And obesity is a major and costly health problem. Linked to diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and other long-term conditions, obesity is soon going to eat up large chunks of the health budget.

It is clear that solving these problems will need many different approaches, all working together. Despite a broad consensus about what a healthy diet looks like, the real problem we need to tackle is behavioural and cultural change, something notoriously resistant to modification.

There is now some good evidence that eating is an automatic behaviour, over which the environment has more control than do individuals. Certainly most of us would recognise being in an environment that affects our food choices: the subtle pressure to eat similar food to our fellow diners in a restaurant, the ease of loading our plates at a buffet, when we might otherwise have eaten a more modest amount. Large portion sizes and large plates mean that we eat more. Placing salad at the start of the buffet means more gets eaten. Apple juice served warm as soup is more filling than the same amount drunk as juice. By presuming that each food choice can be made logically and rationally, we are setting people up to fail in modifying their diets.

What if instead of focusing on the composition of people's diets, we focused on when and how people eat? By moving to a norm where more people eat in contexts that are associated with healthier food - such as food cooked from scratch and a variety of shared dishes - we could link eating for pleasure more closely with eating for health. There is increasing recognition of this approach by those seeking to improve people’s health. In Brazil, their newest Dietary Guidelines suggest eating together as often as possible, and taking time to pay attention to your meals, in addition to recognisable suggestions to eat more fruit and vegetables, and less processed food.

The FSA’s 'Our Food Future' report showed that citizens welcome the increase in convenience eating, but are concerned at losing connection with our food. Smartphones and tablets steal our attention at the table. Different demands and schedules make it hard for families to sit and eat together. Eating at your desk can easily become the norm in offices without a canteen or kitchen to meet in, or because it's important not to be seen away from your desk. 

But some trends suggest we might be able to move in the other direction and improve our food culture. Generation Y seems to put a premium on good food, more than any previous generation.  Any number of apps promote business and social networking over dinner. Startups frequently see the communal lunch table as an important place for the company to meet, following the example of Y-Combinator lunches and startups such as Thumbtack that have even hired a company chef

In this research, we want to examine how the future environment will shape whether we choose to eat together, or eat alone, and what impact that could have on our future health. We want to look at what prompts and changes might help people to eat together, what the potential impact of those changes might be, and what different futures might look like. 

In the worlds of social innovation, mobile apps, and behavioural 'nudge' economics, we can find plentiful examples of behaviour change and modification. By harnessing some of these tools of innovation, alongside a view of the likely future of eating together, we can perhaps help people to shape their food environment to be more beneficial, and less obesogenic.

Image credit: Matt Jones - Unsplash


Louise Marston

Louise Marston

Louise Marston

Director of Innovation Policy and Futures

Louise was Director of Innovation Policy and Futures within the Policy and Research team. She managed Nesta's work on innovation policy and technology futures. She previously worked on…

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