Eating home-cooked meals can add years to your life

More often than not, the value of habitually cooking meals at home all comes down to money. However, a new study conducted by researchers from The University of Michigan elevates meal preparation as an effective deterrent against our growing obesity crisis.

Regularly eating out limits our ability to manage portions in addition to surging our intake of processed meats, sugar, and empty calories. This is why those who prepare their own dinner actually live longer than those who do not.  Unfortunately, many of the components necessary to facilitate this lifestyle change are too expensive for low-income populations.

“Helping more people cook healthy meals at home is a laudable goal, but it is not always feasible for everyone,” explains Julia Wolfson, assistant professor of health management and policy at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health and lead author of the study. “More must be done to help ensure that all people, no matter how frequently they cook, or their level of income, are able to consume a healthy diet.”

The association between nutrition and home-cooked meals

The new paper, which appeared in the latest issue of the Public Health Journal, is an extension of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey administered between 2007 and 2010. The most well-grounded way to asses diet quality is via the Healthy Eating Index, which uses metrics established by The U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs).

The scores range from zero to 100 with each end demonstrating how closely an individual adheres to the DGAs. After review, Wolfson and her team had their pool of participants complete two 24 hour dietary recalls.

Of the 8,668  participants involved in the study, 36% cooked at home seven times a week or more, 31% cooked at home roughly five to six times a week, 21% cooked at home about three to four times a week and 13% live in a household where someone cooked dinner no more than two times a week.

Broadly, home-cooked meals were associated with higher healthy index scores (HEI), though the degree was influenced by frequency and income. Respondents who cooked their meals seven times a week or more raised their HEI score by 2.96 points.

This boost was more dramatic among high-income earners.  Respondents from affluent households raised their score by 5.08 points on average while respondents from poor to middle-class households increased their score by an average of 2.68 points.

It wasn’t that low-income populations ate out more than high-income populations. In fact, high-income families shared an inverse relationship with home-cooked meals. The problem is, without the funds to purchase healthy ingredients, lower-class citizens end up cooking meals that fail to meet the DGAs.

The researchers intend on developing systematic changes to accommodate households unable to sustain quality meal preparation.  As it stands diets comprised of healthy foods, namely fruits, vegetables, fish, and nuts, costs roughly $1.50 more a day than unhealthy diets do. These fiscal limitations no doubt play a monumental role in frustrating our losing fight against obesity. 

The new report was co-authored by Julia Wolfson, Cindy Leung, assistant professor of nutritional sciences at the University School of Public Health, and Caroline Richardson, professor of family medicine at the U-M School of Medicine. You can read the paper in its entirety in the journal of Public Health.