Cooking Is the Ultimate Antidote
Research suggests preparing your own meals is a habit that can lead to meaningful mind and body benefits
In his 2013 bestseller Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Michael Moss describes a concept food scientists refer to as the “bliss point.” The bliss point is the concentration or ratio of pleasurable flavors that produces optimal levels of eater enjoyment and, ultimately, craving.
Salty, sugary, fatty flavors are ones the human brain is genetically hardwired to like most, and the ones that tend to induce a state of gotta-have-more bliss. In nature, the presence of these flavors usually indicates that a food is nutritious and safe to eat. But in nature, foods that contain an abundance of these flavors are either scarce or possess other qualities that put the brakes on overconsumption. The same is not true when it comes to the packaged or prepared foods that fill the shelves and menus of today’s food retailers.
Research from the National Institutes of Health has found that, when a person eats something sweet or salty or fatty, this experience triggers many of the same reward systems and corresponding neurochemical swings that are set off by opioids and other highly addictive substances. And food scientists have learned that, by combining these tastes, they can maximize a product’s reward-center-stoking yuminess. Whether it’s a jar of pasta sauce from the supermarket or a burrito bowl from a “fast-casual” restaurant, a lot of today’s ready-to-eat foods are engineered to keep people coming back for more.
The consequences for the average American’s health have been catastrophic. “I think people have a general understanding that these foods are not designed with health in mind, but they do more damage than that; they’re confusing our fundamental biology,” says Kristi Artz, MD, a lifestyle medicine specialist at Michigan’s Spectrum Health.
The antidote to this confusion, Artz says, is to eat more home-cooked foods made from unprocessed ingredients.
Artz helps run Spectrum Health’s culinary medicine program, which she says combines “the art of cooking with the science of medicine.” The program educates people about the dangers of processed and fast foods and the inherent benefits of manageable, made-from-scratch and home-cooked meals. It also teaches basic culinary skills. “If you don’t know what you’re doing, the food you make won’t taste good,” she says. With a little guidance on the proper ways to cut and prepare vegetables, or help using herbs and spices for a healthy hit of flavor, people can quickly pick up the skills they need to make a delicious meal, she adds.
Over time, they can also recalibrate their taste buds so that they’re satisfied with more modest amounts of salt, sugar, and fat. “Within two to four weeks, people say their palate has changed dramatically,” she says. “They feel more empowered when they make food choices because they’re not driven by these cravings or urges.”
Preparing meals at home can help people free themselves from the unhealthy pull of processed foods.
Like many nutrition experts, Artz says a plant-based diet is healthiest. But even if people don’t restrict themselves to salads and other vegetable-based dishes, there’s evidence that they’ll still be better off cooking at home.
A 2017 study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that people who prepared most of their own meals tended to both eat healthier and save money compared to those who usually ate out. Another 2017 study in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity found that people who ate a home-cooked meal more than five times a week were 28% less likely to be overweight compared to people who ate a home-cooked meal fewer than three times a week. More research links home-cooking to a lower risk for Type 2 diabetes.
While many health-conscious Americans today are focused on their intake of carbs or fat, or on squeezing ever more protein into their diets, the evidence backing these approaches is mixed — especially when it comes to sustaining a healthy weight or avoiding disease in the long-term.
On the other hand, the harms of eating heavily processed food are far less ambiguous. Observational studies have consistently linked processed foods with elevated rates of obesity and disease, and a 2019 NIH clinical trial found that people who adopted a diet high in processed foods both overate and gained weight. “A lot of our health problems would be solved if we just ate real foods instead of packaged and heavily processed ones,” says Robert Lustig, MD, professor emeritus of pediatrics and endocrinology at the University of California, San Francisco who has studied the effects of sugar on human health.
In his book The Hacking of the American Mind, published in 2017, Lustig explains how food manufacturers — much like the technology industry and other corporate interests — have figured out how to manipulate the brain’s reward centers in ways that ensure people become hooked on their products. Preparing meals at home can help people free themselves from the unhealthy pull of processed foods, he says.
But the benefits of cooking may go beyond slimmer waistlines and lower risk for metabolic disease. A 2018 NIH review found evidence that cooking can reduce anxiety — perhaps by distracting people from sources of stress or by engaging them in tasks that are both productive and personally rewarding. “When I speak to patients who aren’t used to cooking, they have anxiety about how to prepare or pull things together, or how people will like it,” says Nicole Farmer, MD, first author of the NIH review and a postdoctoral research fellow at Duke Integrative Medicine. “But when they were actually engaged in cooking, they weren’t anxious.”
Farmer says many people think about cooking as a chore to slog through, rather than as something to enjoy. But the act of cooking has a lot of attributes that research has associated with improved mental health and well-being. Her review found evidence that cooking can contribute “to feelings of accomplishment and confidence.” And she says the fact that cooking produces something — a meal — that can be shared and enjoyed makes it more satisfying than tasks that produce nothing or that have no definite ending.
There are surely times or contexts when cooking is either impossible or stressful in and of itself — like when it’s late and you’re hungry, or when you’ve got several screaming mouths to feed. It’s also true that access to fresh whole foods is a challenge for many. But taken together, the research on cooking suggests it’s a habit that, once adopted, can produce a number of meaningful mind and body benefits.