Is Home Cooking the Answer to the Obesity Epidemic?

Photo illustration by Erwin Olaf for the New York Times

Photo illustration by Erwin Olaf for the New York Times

Of course, there are many reasons for America’s weight problem, but could we improve our collective poundage if everyone started cooking?   That’s one of the questions posed in Michael Pollan’s excellent essay in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine.

If you have not read this tremendous article, you must check it out:  “Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch:  How American Cooking Became a Spectator Sport, and What We Lost Along the Way.”

Once again, Pollan stirs the pot and makes some excellent points in his in-depth piece that tackles everything from takeout to “Top Chef.”  He addresses many issues, but the one I was most drawn to was the idea that the “end of cooking” may be behind our growing behinds.  Research conducted at Harvard by David Cutler and colleagues found that the rise of food preparation outside the home was associated with the increase in obesity in this country.  The researchers found that as the “time cost” of food preparation has fallen, calorie consumption has gone up — particularly consumption of the sort of snack and convenience foods that are typically cooked outside the home.  They found that when we don’t have to cook meals, we eat more of them.  As the amount of time Americans spend cooking has dropped by about half, the number of meals Americans eat in a day has climbed.  Since 1977, we’ve added about half a meal to our daily intake.

“Cutler and his colleagues also surveyed cooking patterns across several cultures and found that obesity rates are inversely correlated with the amount of time spent on food preparation.  The more time a nation devotes to food preparation at home, the lower its rate of obesity.  In fact, the amount of time spent cooking predicts obesity rates more readily than female participation in the labor force or income.  Other research supports the idea that cooking is a better predictor of a healthful diet than social class:  a 1992 study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that poor women who routinely cooked were more likely to eat a more healthful diet than well-to-do women who did not.”

At the end of the article, Pollan includes a quote from the NPD Group’s Harry Balzer that really hits the nail on the head when it comes to the power of home cooking…

“Easy.  You want Americans to eat less?  I have the diet for you.  It’s short, it’s simple.  Here’s my diet plan: Cook it yourself. That’s it.  Eat anything you want — just as long as you’re willing to cook it yourself.

Certainly, it’s a darn good place to start.

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  • One of the problems that lead to weight problems is processed goods rather than raw and natural foods. The second problem and the one that might be at the root is the effects of pollution in the body, which does alter it’s operation. Third the addition to perservatives can be in the store or in the home, it depends on what groceries your’re using.
    One thing home cooking does is save money.

  • Janet

    It really all comes down to calories — not whether a food is processed, raw or natural. It’s not about pollution or preservatives. But I agree, home cooking is more economical.
    Home cooking also means eating at HOME — and there are certainly multiple benefits (physical and emotional) of eating dinner together as a family.

  • Like so many things in the discussion on obesity, this one makes perfect sense. If you cook your meals at home you have control over what goes into your food – particuarly if you are using a lot of natural ingredients.

    I gained a lot of weight (150 lbs) over my ten years of obesity, and 12 years ago I lost the weight. I did cook a lot more at home, and limited restaurant meals to special occasions.

  • Cooking at home certainly does make a difference! When we moved to Sicily, we basically stopped eating out except for the occasional pizza (which are much much healthier in Italy) and the mandatory gelato and granita stops during the summer. I lost about 35 pounds in our first year without trying or even thinking about it. And I don’t cook ‘light’ meals! When we moved back to the states, we fell into the habit of eating out again quite a bit and it didn’t take long for all of those pounds to come back. I think a big part of it is portion control. At home we’re more apt to put ‘reasonable’ portions of food on our plates and stop eating when we get full, while at a restaurant we keep eating because the huge portion of food is sitting there on your plate.

    The whole reason I started my blog was to convince people to start cooking again and nothing makes me happier than receiving an e-mail from someone who decided to stay home and cook after reading one of my posts!

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