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Cooking for a better relationship with food

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I’ve thought about the connection between cooking and disordered eating for years.

I’ve always been enamored with all things food – the way it brings people together, the endless and exciting combinations of ingredients to try, and the sense of pride and accomplishment after creating a meal. Encouraging home cooking and creativity in the kitchen is something I find really important.

I also have a passion for nutrition and science, hence my decision to become a registered dietitian. Helping others improve their nutrition status, reach their goals, all while avoiding unnecessary food restriction has been an extremely rewarding line of work for me.

Being in this somewhat split line of work – chef and dietitian – has led me to speculate about the connection between cooking and peoples’ relationship to food.

When people spend time with their ingredients, transforming them into something delicious, there’s an increased connection between the individual and their nourishment. There’s an increased appreciation for texture and taste. Appreciating and noticing the qualities of food is an important part of connecting to your food, your body, and your authentic taste preference.

Are you someone who has struggled with your relationship to food? Have you spent years of frustration, diet after diet, with the promise of quick fixes failing you again and again? Perhaps you’re also someone who feels like cooking is a chore, or perhaps you’re daunted by the idea of meal prep. Before throwing in the towel and giving up on cooking, this article might inspire you to pull out those pots and pans, even if just once in a while.

Can spending more time in the kitchen cooking really help improve your relationship with food?

I’ve spent a lot of time with chefs and home cooking enthusiasts. These people have a passion for food, good ingredients, and deliciousness. I’ve also spent a lot of time with those who claim to despise the kitchen, and those who rely on quick and easy options. (no shame for quick and easy options because yes of course we all need this at times). But these are often the people who hold a lot more fear around food, have disordered beliefs about what certain foods or ingredients will do to their health or their appearance.

From my experience, I see that those who are more involved in cooking are more content with their relationship to food, and those who are less involved tend to fall on the other side of the spectrum.

Of course, this is only a speculation, but I decided to dive a bit into the literature to better understand what the research says about the connection between cooking and peoples’ relationship to food.

And I found some interesting things:

The incidence of disordered eating is on the rise

The incidence of disordered eating is on the rise. According to the National Eating Disorder Association, up to 50% of Americans have a strained relationship with food and their bodies as well as disordered habits surrounding food (1). Over the past decade, disordered eating behaviors have increased among all demographics (2,3).

Disordered eating often stems from a poor relationship with food and is defined as troubled eating behaviors such as purging, binge eating, food restriction, fasting, laxative/diuretic use, and other inappropriate methods in efforts to lose weight (4,5). Disordered eating behaviors (DEBs) are associated with an increased risk for developing an eating disorder, depression, and poor nutrition status (6,7).

Home cooking is a dying art

Another factor that might explain the rise of disordered eating is the decline of home cooking.

People are cooking less than ever before, largely due to a lack of time and the fact that there are several easily accessible options for eating that don’t involve cooking such as takeout, fast-casual restaurants, and home delivered prepared meals (8).

A report by the USDA found that millennials are eating out at restaurants 30% more than other generations, and they dedicate significantly less time to meal prep compared to other age groups.

While disordered eating is on the rise, the frequency of home cooking is declining. Research suggests that the decline in home cooking may negatively impact mood, confidence, and self-esteem (2).

Cooking promotes better mental health

Research on social cognitive theory suggests that the experience of cooking promotes a positive mood, self-confidence, and self-esteem (11). The association between cooking and mental health suggests that cooking may have a positive impact on individuals that struggle with disordered eating and their relationship with food.

Plus, involvement in the cooking process forces people to be more engaged with the food they eat. When people are disconnected from the food preparation process, they may have heightened fear and skepticism about food, leading to an increase in disordered eating behaviors. It is hypothesized that those who cook more often, those who have a greater passion for cooking, and those who have more cooking knowledge have a healthier relationship with food, and therefore fewer disordered eating tendencies.

There is a correlation between increased consumption of processed foods and the development of eating disorders, although the reasons for the association are not fully understood (9).

However, we have yet to fully understand how cooking shapes an individuals’ relationship with food and their body (3).

Cooking can help encourage intuitive eating

Cooking forces people to slow down and pay attention to their food. The cooking process helps enlighten the senses as we can smell and touch the ingredients before we can experience the sensation of taste. The involvement of all of our senses in the process of cooking can be extremely valuable in helping foster a more positive relationship with food as well as helping encourage more mindful and intuitive eating. For someone working on their relationship with food – or anyone for that matter – try observing your senses during the cooking process, and then take it a step further and observe what emotions, thoughts, or body signals might come up for you. Developing a deep awareness of your body and emotions when it comes to food is a key aspect of working on intuitive eating.

The takeaways

Ultimately, the research is pretty new on the relationship between cooking and disordered eating so it’s hard to say for certain that cooking improves or even prevents disordered eating. However, what we do know is that young people are cooking less and eating disorders are on the rise. We also know that cooking brings people together and can be a valuable practice to improve mental health, which in turn might support a healthier relationship with food.

If you have an eating disorder, are in recovery from an eating disorder, or simply want to work on your relationship with food, turning to the kitchen can be a helpful therapeutic support.


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I'm a dietitian, cook, and writer in New York City with a mission to spread the joy of food and eating, and empower others to live healthier and more delicious lives. I'll post on the blog to share some of my favorite recipes as well as fun and approachable nutrition tips and tricks. 

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