The social disorganization of eating: a neglected determinant of the Australian epidemic of overweight/obesity

BMC Public Health. 2019 Jun 3;19(Suppl 2):454. doi: 10.1186/s12889-019-6768-3.


Background: Over the last 150 years, advanced economies have seen the burden of disease shift to non-communicable diseases. The risk factors for these diseases are often co-morbidities associated with unhealthy weight. The prevalence of overweight/obesity among adults in the advanced countries of the English-speaking world is currently more than two-thirds of the adult population. However, while much attention has concentrated on changes in diet that might have provoked this rapid increase in unhealthy weight, changes in patterns of eating have received little attention.

Methods: This article examines a sequence of large-scale, time use surveys in urban Australia stretching from 1974 to 2006. The earliest survey in 1974 (conducted by the Cities Commission) was limited to respondents aged between 18 and 69 years, while the later surveys (by the Australian Bureau of Statistics) included all adult (15 years of age or over) living private dwellings. Since time use surveys capture every activity in a day, they contain much information about mealtimes and the patterns of eating. This includes duration of eating, number of eating occasions and the timing of eating. Inferential statistics were used to test the statistical significance of these changes and the size of the effects.

Results: The eating patterns of urban Australian adults have changed significantly over a 32-year period and the magnitude of this change is non-trivial. Total average eating time as main activity has diminished by about a third, as have eating occasions, affecting particularly luncheon and evening meals. However, there is evidence that eating as secondary activity that accompanies another activity is now almost as frequent as eating at mealtimes. Moreover, participants seem not to report it.

Conclusions: Contemporary urban Australians are spending less time in organized shared meals. These changes have occurred the over same period during which there has been a public health concern about the prevalence of unhealthy weight. Preliminary indications are that societies that emphasize eating as a commensal, shared activity through maintaining definite, generous lunch breaks and prioritizing eating at mealtimes, achieve better public health outcomes. This has implications for a strategy of health promotion, but to be sure of this we need to study countries with these more socially organized eating patterns.

Keywords: Eating occasions; Mealtimes; Mindless eating; Social organization of eating.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Anomie
  • Australia / epidemiology
  • Body Weight
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Diet / psychology
  • Diet / statistics & numerical data
  • Eating / psychology*
  • Epidemics
  • Feeding Behavior / psychology*
  • Feeding and Eating Disorders / complications
  • Feeding and Eating Disorders / psychology
  • Female
  • Health Surveys / methods
  • Health Surveys / statistics & numerical data
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Meals
  • Middle Aged
  • Obesity / epidemiology
  • Obesity / psychology*
  • Overweight / epidemiology
  • Overweight / psychology*
  • Prevalence
  • Social Behavior
  • Time Factors
  • Urban Population / statistics & numerical data
  • Young Adult