Cooking at Home is the Healthiest
Cooking with my grandmother in her kitchen was the highlight of the holidays when I was young. She taught me how to shred potatoes and not my knuckles, how to safely hold a knife, and that salt and butter (real butter, yes) make food taste better, and she always sent me home with a potato pie with caramelized onions—my absolute favorite. I still make her pie on holidays and always remind my family that it’s my grandmother’s recipe, so that we all feel connected to her.
Not only is does cooking at home feel right, it’s also the healthiest way to eat, beating dining out and ordering in most of the time. So, we have to wind the clocks back a few decades, when cooking at home was the norm, and use modern tools to make simple, nutritious, and tasty meals that accommodate our 21st century busy lives.
This month, I started a new chapter in my quest to promote healthy living in my practice. I’ve started training to become a Clinician CHEF (Culinary Health Education Fundamentals) Coach at Harvard Medical School’s Institute of Lifestyle Medicine. I will learn how to help people cook healthy meals by facilitating groups in person and remotely by video-streaming kitchen-to-kitchen.
Borrowing Michael Pollan’s quote, “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants,” the program’s director, Dr. Rani Polak, was clear that the Institute wasn’t promoting a specific diet, but rather a way of eating and living. The freezer was the star of the kitchen (the slow cooker was also pretty high up there). And batch cooking and repurposing leftovers were the top strategies. The gist is to decrease processed foods and aim for a plant-based diet with mostly veggies and legumes, plenty of fish, and less meat.
This way of eating is nutrient dense, high in fiber, and lower in glycemic index, a number that indicates how fast the body converts carbs into glucose. These elements are more common in traditional diets than in industrialized ones. Many processed foods are engineered to optimize flavor and encourage consumption, contributing to overeating and an increase risk of diabetes, obesity, and possibly depression and anxiety.
It just so happens that the Mediterranean Diet, which is in line with these rules of thumb, brought us promising results this month. A new study showed that women who followed a Mediterranean type dietary pattern closely over about 12 years reduced their risk for heart attacks, stroke, and vascular death by 25%. The lead study author reported that these results are likely to be no different for men. This is exciting, yet 12 years is certainly not a quick fix. This is about establishing a lifestyle that incorporates healthy eating for the long haul.
I’m sticking with the Mediterranean Diet as my go-to recommendation as it’s simple to grasp, delicious, and has the most supportive evidence so far. But mainly, I recommend home cooked food as the key to healthy living. And it’s not just about the food, although the molecules we ingest do become our physical stuff. It’s an investment of time and energy that leads to coming home to a warm meal, gathering around the table, and teamwork where even kids can participate, while also engaging with their health. And it’s about “breaking bread” with family and friends while keeping old family recipes alive and enjoying new ones.