Toss Those Take-Out Menus: New Study Says Cooking Makes us Healthier

There is a great deal of anecdotal evidence to suggest that cooking at home is better for our health. It’s also well known that eating convenience food is associated with poorer nutrition, obesity, and other metabolic diseases. Food experts, ranging from NYU professor Marion Nestle to author Michael Pollan and New York Times columnist Mark Bittman, have long argued that homemade meals belong at the center of a healthy diet.

Yet little research to date has focused on the relationship between how often people cook at home and the quality of their diets. A new study presented today at the American Public Health Association annual meeting and published in the journal Public Health Nutrition provides strong evidence to support the connection.

“If a person–or someone in their household–cooks dinner frequently, regardless of whether or not they are trying to lose weight, diet quality improves,” write authors Julia Wolfson and Sara Bleich, researchers in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “This is likely due to the relatively lower energy, fat, and sugar contents in foods cooked at home compared with convenience foods or foods consumed away from home,” they explain.

Wolfson and Bleich analyzed data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Study (NHANES) to find out whether the link between healthier diets and frequency of home cooking can be documented scientifically.

As part of the NHANES data gathered between 2007 and 2010, approximately 9,500 adults 20 and older were asked about their cooking habits. Researchers found that households that reported cooking dinner at home most frequently (6 to 7 times a week) consumed “significantly fewer” calories and ate better than those who relied more heavily on restaurant meals and frozen foods.

The researchers found that 8 percent of adults lived in households in which someone cooked dinner no more than once a week; 44 percent cooked dinner 2 to 5 times a week; and 48 percent reported cooking dinner 6 to 7 times a week. Compared to the low-cooking category, those in the high-cooking category consumed significantly more fiber, fewer carbohydrates, and less sugar.

“From first-hand knowledge, I know how much fat and salt can be in restaurant food, whether it’s fine dining or fast food,” said Wolfson, who worked for 10 years as a chef in restaurants in New York and Los Angeles. “The food is formulated for flavor, so health is not at the top of a list of concern.”

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The same is often true for processed and pre-packaged meals, as Michael Pollan noted in his recent book Cooked. “Corporations cook very differently from how people do…” and “tend to use much more sugar, fat, and salt than people cooking for people do,” he writes.

What the study doesn’t reveal, Wolfson explained during her APHA presentation, is what people mean by “cooking.” While the NHANES data includes questions about frozen meals, including pizza, it doesn’t ask about other prepared ingredients, including those now available in most major supermarkets.

The researchers also found no significant relationship between cooking frequency and body weight. As they note, “not all cooking is healthy.” Additional questions remain about what obstacles might be keeping some cooks from cooking with fresh, whole ingredients.

At the APHA meeting, Wolfson presented some follow-up research suggesting that when it comes to cooking with fresh fruit and vegetables, income is a significant piece of the puzzle. Their research to date shows that people of lower income are buying and eating less fresh produce regardless of how often they cook at home.

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While these findings are not necessarily surprising, the data will be important in improving “access to high quality ingredients and circumstances that allow people to cook,” and to how cooking is used as a strategy in combating obesity, Wolfson said.

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Elizabeth Grossman was a senior reporter for Civil Eats from 2014 to 2017, where she focused on environmental and science issues. She is the author of Chasing Molecules, High Tech Trash, Watershed and other books. Her work appeared in a variety of publications, including National Geographic News, The Guardian, The Intercept, Scientific American, Environmental Health Perspectives, Yale e360, Ensia, High Country News, The Washington Post, Salon, The Nation, and Mother Jones. She passed away in July 2017, leaving behind a legacy of dedication to her mission of journalism that supports and protects people and the planet. Read more >

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  1. i couldn't agree more with this article. We are all busy people but if our health is a priority then we should be preparing our meals. Take the time to prepare food and freeze it too. The quick fix for meals will lead to a quick weight gain.
  2. Amy Hayward
    I moved to Portland Oregon in 1983 when my cooking habits intensified with all the fresh fruit, berries & vegetables also coming from Az. the weather helped
    to stay indoors. I cook and bake everything we eat from
    scratch, my husband & I are 80 years old and don't need
    medications and enjoy good health. It is a lot of work daily but I enjoy the work and hate to eat out. We live
    in Az. now and walk daily.I wish everyone could do what I do for their families, it would cut healthcare dramatically , but either husband or wife would have to stay home.
  3. Grateful for this article and the research it discusses. I raised my children on whole, fresh foods that I prepared three times a day, most days. Then, of course, there were the snacks, also homemade. Our pediatrician used to say we had the healthiest kids in the world.

    Glad to know there's some science to back up my belief back then, and now, that home-cooked meals that eschewed processed foods as much as possible were the best for us.

    I've shared this with some peeps on my (almost) new Facebook page, Cooking with Whole Grains & Whole Foods.

    Thank you for an excellent article.
  4. zach Rusk
    Fresh isn't inherently better than canned/frozen.
  5. Cooking diamond
    Fresh may not always be better than canned or frozen, I agree. The tomatoes I grew myself kept for weeks in a cool cupboard but the " fresh ones I buy at the supermarket go fuzzy after a week. But cooking ones own food has to be better than relying on pre prepared meals or takeaway all the time. I saw a recipe the other day on an American website for a potato gratin, it looked lovely. When I checked out the recipe every item came in a bag or carton, pre cooked or dried, soup, garlic,onions potatoes, everything had been premade. That is not my idea of cooking. The worst part was that it was from a "healthy" eating forum. Cooking doesn,t have to be fancy, just nutritious and tasty, and yes, freshly frozen food is often better than superm

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