Conviviality and Commensality: Underappreciated Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet

Among the often neglected features of the Mediterranean diet is the preparation and sharing of food. Conviviality and commensality, the practice of eating together, can mediate health benefits. A new study revealed the importance of conviviality in driving part of the health effects of the Mediterranean lifestyle. People eat every day, not just to meet our nutritional needs but also because the social dimension of sharing meals is a central part of human civilisation and food cultures around the world. In particular, the Mediterranean diet, well known for being sustainable and having an optimal nutritional profile that increases longevity and minimises morbidity, sees the preparation and sharing of food as intrinsic cornerstones.

A beneficial social phenomenon

The Mediterranean diet has been positively related to a low prevalence of chronic degenerative diseases, psychological well-being, and lower levels of both anxiety and depression. Among the features of the traditional Mediterranean model is commensality, the act of eating and sharing food with other people at the same table, from a formal dinner party to a festive gathering to an ordinary family meal. This fundamental social phenomenon has remained a deeply rooted social practice across the continuum of human evolution, traced back to our primate predecessors who engaged in the sharing of sustenance, a key factor in enhancing group success and security. Conviviality and the pleasure derived from shared food experiences play a role in contributing to its health benefits, yet these are often overlooked features of the Mediterranean diet. The release of neurochemicals, such as oxytocin and endorphins, might explain such benefits.

In a 2023 study, scientists report a 29% lower risk of all-cause mortality and a 28% lower risk of cancer mortality in those with high adherence toMediterranean dietary habits. The category that was most closely linked to these reduced risks – as well as a lower risk of cardiovascular disease mortality – was “physical activity, rest, social habits and conviviality“. The Mediterranean diet is often praised for its ‘tastiness’, thanks to the use of local ingredients and traditional recipes, in contrast to dietary advice in some countries where prevailing guidelines often revolve around rigid rules, a sense of deprivation, with minimal regard for aspects of taste, culinary heritage, shared meals or the simple pleasure of eating. A higher adherence to the Mediterranean lifestyle has been associated with higher levels of happiness in adolescents, a 30% reduced risk for depression and a 40% reduced risk for cognitive impairment. Experimentally, sharing meals can also be a productive treatment strategy for the management of depression, adding further experimental evidence of the therapeutic actions of the Mediterranean diet.

Conviviality has a significant impact on overall well-being

Conviviality and health are closely related concepts, as social connections and positive interactions with others can have a significant impact on overall well-being, building strong relationships, fostering a sense of community, and creating a supportive environment where individuals can thrive. Social context exerts a profound influence on eating behaviour. When in the company of others, our dietary choices and patterns diverge significantly from when we dine in solitude. For example, adults who eat alone consume fewer fruits and vegetables and more junk food than those who eat with others.

In addition, the family is the most fundamental commensal unit. Families that eat meals together tend to have healthier diets, and family members are less likely to be overweight or obese, having better academic performance in youths and improved mental health outcomes. Mounting evidence shows that the family environment is essential for developing positive eating behaviours in children and adolescents, as food conviviality can promote healthy eating habits. In fact, a lunch/dinner table is where social bonds are strengthened, cultural exchange continues and meeting others allows intergenerational exchange. These symbolic aspects are particularly evident in the rituals associated with festivals and community events, an opportunity to share a meal in an atmosphere of celebration, laughter, and conviviality.

The limits of fragmented and individualised eating patterns

In contrast, the Western diet and lifestyle are often characterised by fragmented and individualised eating patterns, with fast-paced eating habits and an overall low nutritional quality linked to a decline in commensality and diminished conviviality, contributing to adverse health outcomes. Epidemiological investigations into the so-called Blue Zones, regions with exceptional longevity, reveal a common thread of robust commensality and conviviality. People with strong social connections and a sense of community are healthier than those who are socially isolated. Social support has been linked to a lower risk of depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions, as well as a lower risk of physical health problems such as heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Moreover, food conviviality can encourage people to try new and healthy foods, as sharing meals with others can expose individuals to different cultural cuisines, promoting a diverse and balanced diet.

Based on the available evidence, scientists suggest public health initiatives and interventions aimed at directly increasing/improving people’s social relationships and interactions, networking, and sociability. As modern society is increasingly characterised by social isolation and loneliness, scientists recommend promoting sharing meals and conviviality to improve people’s eating and living habits.

“Health is closely linked to a healthy diet and adequate physical activity, but nutrition and physical activity can do more, facilitating the creation of social networks between people who, in turn, can promote well-being – says Elisabetta Bernardi, nutritional biologist and main author of the study – When thinking about the Mediterranean diet to explain its health benefits, it is necessary to also think about the social aspects, about eating together. Conviviality can benefit in many ways, including reducing stress, improving mood, improving nutrient intake, and increasing happiness and well-being. Therefore, conviviality and positive experiences related to food can also lead to better dietary choices.”