Proper nutrition is fundamental to our health and longevity. Without the right nourishment for the majority of your life, it becomes harder and harder to avoid most of the chronic diseases that plague the world today.
But a long, healthy and rewarding life goes beyond simply choosing nutritious foods to eat. Like the World Health Organization’s holistic definition of health, it is better described as "a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity."
Therefore, our relationship to food matters in a big way. Some of the latest work in this area has been popularized by the Blue Zones project. This massive and ongoing project has studied 5 regions of the world with disproportionately high rates of active centenarians who have low rates of many of the chronic diseases that afflict the rest of the world.
A healthy diet, unsurprisingly, was a key component to their longevity. But other factors play equally important roles, as well. For example, the inhabitants of each region possess good habits for dealing with stress. Take the Sardinians of Italy, for example. Sipping on a glass of wine in the afternoon with friends and family everyday helps them wind down from the day’s stress (and potentially helping to reduce their risk of cardiovascular disease at the same time). And meals are almost always enjoyed in the company of others in all of these regions.
As I started to seek out traditional recipes from these places, another fact began to emerge. Many of their traditional dishes and cooking techniques take quite a bit of time. In a world of “10-minute-or-less” recipes designed to fit into our face-paced lifestyles, I too initially looked at the recipes dauntingly.
But in doing so, I’ve been missing one of the best ways to improve wellness and overall life satisfaction. Instead of inducing more stress, extended cooking times have done just the opposite. The complication of a new recipe has ironically forced a simplification into the evenings I spend with my wife. Slowing down the pace of life, even for a moment, has reaped major benefits on my well-being.
Being a researcher, my first instinct was to scour the peer-reviewed literature to see what kind of research had been done on the topic of cooking and its impact, either positive or negative, on health and life satisfaction. Here’s what I found.
Preparing and cooking meals from home is associated with better nutritional health, primarily because the use of whole food ingredients over processed foods leads to reduced consumption of salt and sugar and increased consumption of several vitamins and minerals often lost in many processing methods. It is also associated with better weight management and higher consumption of fruits, vegetables, and whole-grains. And if you’re having trouble getting your kids to eat their veggies, studies show that involving them in the cooking process improves their willingness to eat them!
A study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association showed that young adults who prepared and cooked food themselves were less likely to eat fast food, and more likely to meet dietary recommendations for daily intake of fat, calcium, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
Another study interestingly looked specifically at the time spent preparing and cooking meals at home. They too, found that cooking home meals was associated with better quality diets. But in addition, these researchers found that those who spent more time routinely preparing and cooking meals showed a progressively greater correlation to a high quality diet.
Other studies from around the world back up these findings. A study on Norwegian seniors showed that those who are satisfied with their food-related lives and eat healthy diets were more satisfied with life, in general. This is particularly important for seniors, as their dietary habits tend to shift with decreased mobility and fractured social lives. Maintaining these ties to healthy diets, cooking practices, and dining with friends and family better maintains happiness and improves longevity. Indeed, another study that specifically looked at happiness and longevity demonstrated that happiness appears to have a causal effect on preventing illness and extending life.
This association is stable across the world, both in developed and in developing nations. Studies in Chile and Ecuador produced similar results to that of European countries, showing that good dietary practices and better quality time spent around eating and preparing meals with family and friends leads to greater happiness and life satisfaction, improving physical and mental health along the way.
A recent report corroborated the notion that time equals happiness. This study, in particular, examined the best use of finances. Spending money on activities and services that increased time routinely improves happiness to a greater degree than buying material goods.
The time spent cooking and eating meals is best spent in the company of those you care about. This is intuitive when we think about it; it is simply more fun spending time with people you like. But it boosts your mental and physical health, too. A study of university students has shown that quality time around meals with family improves happiness and life satisfaction while lowering mental health issues. A large study of Thai eating behaviors also showed that those who did not eat alone over long periods of time are happier.
If cooking from scratch seems intimidating, have no fear. A study that investigated the new entrants to the field of culinary arts reiterated the old adage that practice makes perfect. Those who continued to cook from scratch improved not only their confidence, but their enjoyment of the process as well.
Maybe society will never go back to its traditional cooking habits. Time is routinely cited as one of the major impediments to cooking from home. But increasing quality time, by any amount, can make positive gains for you and those around you.
According to the 20-year Framingham Heart Study, happiness tends to cluster at the community level, suggesting that happiness can indeed be spread among communities. Increasing quality time spent cooking and dining with loved ones will not only help your own physical and mental health, it just might naturally spread to make the world a better place, literally!