Can Cooking Heal Us? Here's What Experts Say.

The act of preparing food benefits our body and soul. Here's how.
Illustration: Chris McGonigal/HuffPost; Photo: Getty Images

In Elizabeth Gilbert’s 2006 bestselling memoir “Eat, Pray, Love,” the author dives into the flavours that make up Italian cuisine to deal with the grief spurred by a divorce and a sedentary life.

In Nora Ephron’s beloved 2009 film “Julie & Julia,” Amy Adams’ character vows to cook all 524 recipes that make up Julia Childs’ iconic cookbook, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” in an effort to assuage the frustration she feels toward her job at a local call center.

Taking on the role of successful restaurateur Jane Adler in Nancy Meyers’ 2009 rom-com “It’s Complicated,” Meryl Streep quite literally hides in the protagonist’s home kitchen and bakery when reflecting on (or avoiding) matters of the heart, all the while baking some truly delicious-looking treats on screen.

Food-adjacent plotlines abound throughout Hollywood. In some cases, characters’ creative arcs and ability to overcome periods of agony and sorrow completely rely on their devotion and relationship to food. In “Burnt,” Bradley Cooper’s character dives into the culinary arts to assuage his drug addiction; “Eat Drink Man Woman,” the 1994 Ang Lee film, uses a family’s standing Sunday night dinner plans as a point of reflection when it comes to dealing with sorrow and joy throughout life’s up and downs.

It’s clear: thinking, talking and looking at food soothes our spirit. This human tendency was never as pronounced in modern history as it was during the COVID-19 pandemic, when folks constricted to the household turned to cooking and baking to pass the time and, perhaps, alleviate a general sense of sadness.

The trend should come as no surprise, as there have been countless research projects on the topic.

Creative activities like cooking and baking are directly connected to an increased sense of well-being, according to a 2016 study by the University of Otago in New Zealand published in the Journal of Positive Psychology.

Researchers asked 658 university students to keep a record of their activities and associated mental states over 13 days. After partaking in creative pursuits ― a common one among the subjects was cooking new recipes, according to a related study ― students reported feeling more enthusiasm and positive growth than usual, the researchers found.

“The act of cooking and the ability to prepare food is in itself a sacred act,” said Dr. Sudhir Gadh, a board-certified psychiatrist with a private practice in New York. “It’s something you do carefully and with focus. You don’t do it while doing other things and you put care and love into it.”

The ability to focus entirely on the task at hand — one that requires attention to detail, including specific measurements and constant monitoring — allows us to easily block out distractions that may cause stress and anxiety throughout the day.

Of course, the characterisation is not solely relegated to the kitchen. But there’s something about the end result of cooking for oneself, from aromas to colors and flavours, that can deliver even more comfort than, say, crocheting or colouring.

“I find that the more time you spend cooking, the more time you want to spend eating and appreciating all the hard work you’ve done,” said Sarah Wagner, a registered dietician with Memorial Hermann Health System in Houston. “That helps you to be more mindful, have less distractions and be more grateful for the moment.”

“Many people find joy and calmness in baking, because it is very tactile and typically commands your full attention, primarily when you use repetitive motions with your hands,” Kimberly Lou, the author of “Becoming Who You’re Meant to Be,” told Fast Company in 2019.

In addition to its therapeutic effects, experts argue that eating food cooked by oneself will help our bodies function better on a biological level.

“When you’re not feeling well and either don’t eat or eat fast foods, you’re not feeding the system that requires you to adjust its inflammation and therefore make the situation worse,” Gadh said. “If you cook, the food is generally more digestible and it will help the body instead of harming it.”

Wagner agreed, focusing on diet patterns over specific ingredients or foods. “I suggest eating the rainbow and getting a lot of colours in your diet,” she said. “Cooking with more whole ingredients is also important as it might lead you to use family recipes that will connect you to your ancestors and be good mood boosters.”

During the pandemic, the dietician noticed the importance of using whole ingredients in the kitchen. “Some people were just snacking all day because they were home while others embraced whole foods and cooking and those were the people that lost weight and felt healthier,” she noted. “I wish people could indulge in that slower-paced lifestyle again just to enjoy things and the experience of eating more. Convenience and quickness generally outweigh healthiness and appreciation of the meal. I noticed with my peers and patients that a healthy relationship with food goes a lot further than a single ingredient would on your mood.”

In short: eat well, cook what you eat and don’t focus too much on a single dish. It’s all about the big picture.

Those who thrive on specifics, though, should keep in mind that one of the most important aspects of staying healthy both mentally and physically involves the consumption of water, according to experts. “Water is very good for mood, cognitive performance and energy levels,” Wagner said. “A lot of clients don’t drink enough water but, once they start hydrating, they start to feel a lot better. When you’re dehydrated, you’re not going to work as efficiently.”

Gadh echoed those feelings, suggesting drinking three liters of water a day to stay in shape.

Another tip from the psychiatrist involves the actual act of eating.

“We have to look at meals as a sacred time and a meditative moment of connection and peace,” he argued. “If you’re eating while watching TV, for example, it delegitimises the importance of breaking bread. Every dinner should be candlelit, feature small amounts of wine and basically be a moment for you to remove yourself from the stimuli that you’re bombarded with all day.”

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