New research from Edith Cowan University (ECU) in Australia reveals that being comfortable in the kitchen not only keeps your taste buds happy, it also helps your mental health.
The study was done in partnership with The Good Foundation and Jamie’s Ministry of Food Initiative, along with a mobile food kitchen that provided community cooking classes to the University’s Perth and SW campuses from 2016 to 2018.
The seven-week health cooking series had 657 participants. While the cooking course continued, ECU Institute of Nutrition Research academics monitored the effect of the program on participants’ cooking confidence and self-perceived mental health. Overall satisfaction with cooking and diet-related behaviors were also measured.
Significant improvements in the subjects' general health, mental health, and vitality after the program. Those improvements were even sustained for six months after completion of the course, compared to the research control group.
In addition, improved cooking confidence, ability to alter eating habits, and reduced lifestyle barriers to nutritious eating were observed.
The study’s researcher, Dr. Joanna Rees, noted the importance of the link between healthy eating and mental health. "Improving people's diet quality can be a preventive strategy to halt or slow the rise in poor mental health, obesity, and other metabolic health disorders," she asserted.
Dr. Rees suggests that programs in the future should focus on the barriers to healthful eating, like poor food environments and time restrictions. Greater emphasis should be placed on the value of nutritious meals through the use of quick and easy, home-cooked meals containing lots of fruits and vegetables and minimal ultra-processed, convenience foods.
Previous research by the Institute uncovered a connection between eating more fruits and vegetables and sustained mental health. This was a larger study that obtained more detailed dietary data. This study suggested that participants’ improved diets may have helped them feel better too.
Although participants denied that their diets changed after completing the cooking classes, their mental health still improved.
Benefits to mental health were equal in normal, overweight, and obese participants, suggesting a connection between cooking confidence, satisfaction with cooking, and emotional health benefits, according to Dr. Rees.
Who Should be Cooking?
The authors note that cooking is still a highly-gendered task. From the beginning of the cooking classes, 77% of participants that identified as female admitted to having cooking confidence while only 23% of identified male participants claimed the same.
By the end of the cooking program, confidence in cooking skills was equal in both men and women.
"This change in confidence could see a change to the household food environment by reducing the gender bias and leading to a gender balance in home cooking," Dr Rees explained.
She further suggests that knowing how to cook may help people overcome barriers such as time constraints, which can segue into convenience meals or fast food, which is high in calories, and low in nutritional content.
How to Use This Information to Help Your Clients:
- Collaborate with farmer’s markets to provide cooking classes.
- Offer cooking classes in your local garden center.
- Provide a list of online virtual cooking classes for clients.
- Create a cooking class series that’s affordable and accessible.
- Partner with your state agriculture education extension specialists.
- Seek grant funding to provide community cooking classes at churches or other venues.
By Lisa Andrews, MEd, RD, LD
- Joanna Rees, Shih Ching Fu, Johnny Lo, Ros Sambell, Joshua R. Lewis, Claus T. Christophersen, Matthew F. Byrne, Robert U. Newton, Siobhan Boyle, Amanda Devine. How a 7-Week Food Literacy Cooking Program Affects Cooking Confidence and Mental Health: Findings of a Quasi-Experimental Controlled Intervention Trial. Frontiers in Nutrition, 2022; 9 DOI: 10.3389/fnut.2022.802940
Stephanie Ronco has been editing for Food and Health Communications since 2011. She graduated from Colorado College magna cum laude with distinction in Comparative Literature. She was elected a member of Phi Beta Kappa in 2008.