As humans have evolved, cooking has become an increasingly more prominent part of our home lives – contributing to our sense of culture, community, and social relationships when shared with friends and family. But cooking has the power to nourish more than just our body. Researchers from the Cleveland Clinic are helping us to understand how preparing food does more than just fill our stomachs.

Dr. Marwan Sabbagh, Director of the Cleveland Clinic’s Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health summarizes the research as follows: “A nourishing, home-cooked meal, shared with friends or family, is a familiar activity that exercises the brain… It provides the nutrition our bodies crave and encourages social interaction, all of which are critical to preserving cognitive fitness.” To break this down further, it is the actions associated with cooking that require us to rely on memory, attention, multitasking, and problem solving to put a dish on the table. These steps essentially give your brain a work-out without even touching the gym! Whether the meal is a total success or needs a few tweaks – you can be proud that your efforts have positive effects on brain health and wellness.

As our lives have become busier, humans have shifted to cooking at home less frequently and relying on quick, pre-packaged replacements. However, the health benefits of a home cooked meal are wide scoping. A 2018 article published by Dr. Nicole Farmer in Health, Education and Behaviour found that home-based cooking has been shown to improve nutritional status, healthy weight, and overall intake of key vitamins and nutrients. In those with chronic health conditions like type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer, the benefits on physical health are exponential.

Interestingly, Dr. Farmer and colleagues also found evidence linking cooking and home-based eating habits with better mood, self-esteem, and mental health. Those who cooked more frequently and who perceived themselves to have a greater cooking ability tended to have better family connections, improved mental health, and had lower levels of depression. Particularly in women, those who cooked at home also engaged in more socialization and led overall healthier lives with fewer health-averse behaviours, like smoking. When taken together, these studies support the notion that cooking may have benefits beyond just nutrition, but also in psychological and social wellness. This is incredibly timely as studies have already begun to showcase the positive impact of cooking on mental health during the COVID-19 lockdown period.

This research is being harnessed to change the way that we treat diseases affecting the brain, such as dementia. In a group of elderly females with dementia, supervised cooking classes were implemented as a clinical trial to assess their effects on behaviour and mood. In comparison to those who received standard medical treatment, dementia patients who received the cooking classes had fewer negative behavioural and mood symptoms.

Clearly, the movement to integrate meal planning, home cooking and culinary techniques into modern medicine has already begun! We know that the more people cook at home, the more nutritious their diet and the less likely they are be overweight or experience chronic health problems, like dementia, diabetes and heart disease. But whether it be social, physical or mental health, there is a growing body of evidence that supports home cooking as an effective prescription.