DR MAX PEMBERTON reveals how eating alone can ruin your appetite for life - as ...

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A million people in this country aren’t eating properly. But they aren’t bingeing on junk food or following dodgy diets.

Instead, they are skipping meals or relying on convenience foods because they are lonely. They simply cannot face cooking and then eating alone.

That’s one million people over 70, according to the research by the Royal Voluntary Service.

Pauline was a widow and her son, who lived miles away, was busy with his young family, while her daughter had emigrated to Canada. Her close friends were dead or housebound. A stock image is used above [File photo]

Pauline was a widow and her son, who lived miles away, was busy with his young family, while her daughter had emigrated to Canada. Her close friends were dead or housebound. A stock image is used above [File photo]

This has to be one of the most depressing statistics I’ve seen —not least because it reveals the isolation experienced by some of the most vulnerable individuals in our society.

I work in an eating disorders clinic and patients with weight loss are the most common referrals. Usually, they have anorexia, but I also see older patients referred because they have stopped eating.

Some will have depression, but many have lost their appetite because meal after meal prepared and then eaten alone reminds them of their predicament.

Husbands, wives and friends have died, while sons, and daughters may be living far away. There’s no one even to share a cup of tea with.

A million people in this country aren¿t eating properly. But they aren¿t bingeing on junk food or following dodgy diets. Instead, they are skipping meals or relying on convenience foods because they are lonely [File photo]

A million people in this country aren’t eating properly. But they aren’t bingeing on junk food or following dodgy diets. Instead, they are skipping meals or relying on convenience foods because they are lonely [File photo]

Last month, I assessed an elderly woman — let’s call her Pauline —who’d lost nearly half her body weight in a couple of years.

When she saw her GP about an unrelated complaint, he feared that her weight loss was the result of cancer and referred her for a battery of tests. All came back negative.

So Pauline was sent to see a dietitian, who told her to eat more, and make sure her meals were nutritious.

‘What’s the point, Doctor?’ she asked me. ‘They’re telling me to eat things like stews for dinner, but I can’t face preparing it and then eating it alone.’

It was the silence that was the worst, she said. ‘Mealtimes shouldn’t be silent.’

The only solution to loneliness is companionship and friendship, and I believe it is our responsibility to tackle the gowing epidemic of loneliness, especially among the elderly [File photo]

The only solution to loneliness is companionship and friendship, and I believe it is our responsibility to tackle the gowing epidemic of loneliness, especially among the elderly [File photo]

Pauline was a widow and her son, who lived miles away, was busy with his young family, while her daughter had emigrated to Canada. Her close friends were dead or housebound. 

‘When your world shrinks and there’s just you, eating doesn’t seem a priority,’ she said. Her supper was usually a piece of toast or crackers.

I wrote to Pauline’s GP reporting no evidence of an eating disorder. The diagnosis was ‘loneliness’. 

I included a list of local lunch clubs and befriending schemes, and I hope Pauline joined one of them.

Humans are gregarious creatures and down the millennia, eating — the sharing of available food — evolved into a social event. 

Mealtimes brought people together, established bonds between individuals and provided an opportunity to discuss problems.

Is it any wonder that so many older people become depressed when they lose this vital interaction with others?

The only solution to loneliness is companionship and friendship, and I believe it is our responsibility to tackle the gowing epidemic of loneliness, especially among the elderly. 

Organisations like the Royal Voluntary Service run drop-ins and lunch clubs and always need volunteers, so why not sign up if you have some spare hours?

Or why not explore setting up something similar yourself?

When I first moved into my apartment block, a neighbour called to tell me about the rota to cook for another occupant who was housebound and alone.

People had seen that he was struggling and did something about it. I explained that I wasn’t a great cook and declined.

‘Oh don’t worry, he’s fine with takeaways,’ my neigbour said.

I’m glad she persisted. I saw the gentleman each month for three years until he died. He got a meal and I made a fascinating friend.

It’s so easy to make a small difference. Let’s all vow to do our bit to challenge loneliness.

Just 30 minutes walking a day can ¿neutralise¿ the risk of depression, even in those with a family history, according to a landmark Harvard study

Just 30 minutes walking a day can ‘neutralise’ the risk of depression, even in those with a family history, according to a landmark Harvard study

Just 30 minutes walking a day can ‘neutralise’ the risk of depression, even in those with a family history, according to a landmark Harvard study.

We know depression is, in part, genetic. Yet this research shows that, in the words of one of the scientists, ‘genes

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