Is solitary eating (individual eating) always bad? - Director's Blog



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Is solitary eating (individual eating) always bad?

Japanese Chinese

A movement to promote education about food in Japan is currently taking place under the Basic Law on Shokuiku (food and nutrition education). We all know that what and how we eat dramatically affects our health, contributing to obesity, excessive weight loss and such adverse conditions as hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease. The importance of teaching good eating habits to maintain a healthy balanced diet is well known.

We can all agree that food education also aims to preserve and share food culture. Japanese cuisine was recently designated an intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO, which indicates that Japanese cuisine as culture is now recognized internationally as well.

While I fully understand this significance accorded to food education, there are a number of points that I don't understand.

For example, there is one view that favors eating with others and reducing what is either called "solitary eating" or "individual eating," depending on the Chinese character used in the word koshoku. It claims that rather than having a meal all alone, it is better to enjoy a meal in the company of family, for instance.

But why is eating alone considered in such a negative light? I don't think we can definitively say that eating alone is not fun. Families who get along may enjoy having a meal together, but there may also be times when eating alone is easier and more comfortable. As children get older, their daily schedule differs from that of their parents, and as result, setting a time for the family to eat together actually becomes stressful for everyone.

For some children, eating together at day care centers and school can be very stressful. In particular, children who are slow eaters or picky eaters experience discomfort during lunchtime when they have to eat at a certain time and finish everything they are served.

In the past, I have treated a child who suddenly felt nauseous and vomited when it was lunchtime at school. She, however, showed no signs of this when it was dinnertime at home. Having diagnosed the vomiting as psychogenic, I listened to her accounts of what took place at school and was surprised by what I heard.

In this case, the child who was a slow eater was still eating although all the other children had finished. The teacher made the other children who had already finished their meal surround the child and encourage her on with cries of "You can do it! Go! Go!" I often bring up this incident in my classes at university and quite a few students have told me afterwards that they had the same experience, so it hardly seems to be something rare.

Of course, we know that eating together contributes to regular mealtimes and that social development is fostered though human relations in the process of having meals together. I have voiced my opinion here at the risk of being misunderstood because I believe that the act of eating is basically a very individual one and that placing strong social restrictions on eating sometimes leads to undesirable results. I hope that all those involved in food education keep in mind that not only eating alone, but also correcting an unbalanced diet checking for leftovers, and other such practices can cause considerable psychological stress to children.

Sakakihara_Yoichi.bmp Yoichi Sakakihara
M.D., Ph.D., Professor, Graduate School of Humanities and Sciences, Ochanomizu University; Director of Child Research Net, President of Japanese Society of Child Science. Specializes in pediatric neurology, developmental neurology, in particular, treatment of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Asperger's syndrome and other developmental disorders, and neuroscience. Born in 1951. Graduated from the Faculty of Medicine, the University of Tokyo in 1976 and taught as an instructor in the Department of the Pediatrics before assuming current post.