Who’s Cooking? Habits of modern-day Americans


The May Nutrition Society Paper of the Month is from Public Health Nutrition and is entitled “Prevalence and patterns of cooking dinner at home in the USA: National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) 2007-2008”.

Many people – mothers, writers, teachers, politicians – advocate cooking as a means to better health. Medical professionals too understand the importance of cooking for health. Yet we know very little about the cooking habits of Americans, in particular the cooking habits of different communities across our diverse nation. Strategies to improve health and prevent obesity assume that people have the motivation and ability to gather fresh ingredients and turn them into a delicious meal. For most of us though, these seemingly simple tasks are quite complex. From making a grocery list, to budgeting, to watching the kids while something is boiling on the stove, regularly making the time and space to cook is not an easy task. If we want to impact cooking habits, we must first know whether modern-day Americans are choosing to cook and then understand the factors driving those choices.

We examined national data from 2007 and 2008 that asked 10,149 Americans how frequently they cook dinner at home. On the whole, half of all Americans cook dinner 6 or 7 nights a week, though this varies across different populations. Poorer, less educated households tended to either cook dinner all the time or not at all, while wealthier, more educated households tended to be in the middle, sometimes cooking and sometimes not. It is encouraging that many Americans with lower income and less education cook regularly because these same communities are at the highest risk for poor health. Of course, these findings make sense when considering the effort and money it takes to get a kitchen up and running, and keep it going. Wealthier families can afford to occasionally not use everything in their refrigerators and pantries, whereas for poorer families, once food is purchased, there is no choice but to put it to good use.

Cultural norms have a significant effect on people’s cooking patterns regardless of other factors. Hispanics born in the US and African Americans tended to cook dinner all the time or not at all, even when accounting for income and education level, while Hispanics born outside the US cooked the most of any group. This suggests that those who acculturate into marginalized segments of American society may decrease their frequency of cooking at home.

Family structure also plays an important role. Those living with a partner/spouse or children tended to cook more than their single or childless counterparts. This is not surprising given that cooking and feeding others are inherently social behaviors driven by a desire to provide both emotional and material stability; thus those living in social environments should be more likely to cook.

What are the implications of these findings? We know that home-cooked food is generally healthier than food prepared outside the home, so if many Americans are already cooking, then we have a ready pathway to improve people’s diets. Yet our research suggests that cooking may mean different things to different people. For some, finding time to cook may be a challenge. For others, it may be money that gets in the way.

Finally, while we in the healthcare community focus on the role food plays in people’s health, for most people, food is a means for enjoyment, expression and culture. Identifying cooking as a means to greater health is only the first step. We must now work with individuals, families, and communities to address their distinct challenges and understand how those challenges translate into improving cooking habits and practices on a population level.

This paper is freely available for one month via the following link: journals.cambridge.org/ns/may


Improving mood with the right food

Nutrition and mood

The December Nutrition Society Paper of the Month is from Nutrition Research Reviews and is entitled ‘Food-derived serotonergic modulators: effects on mood and cognition’

Food is a primary requirement to live. Yet, in Western societies where food is abundantly available, food could also be used as a powerful tool to increase mental well-being. Stress-related mental disorders like mood or anxiety disorders are the most prevalent and burdensome psychiatric disorders. They are characterized by low mood states and cognitive impairments like reduced learning and memory. Thus, the exploitation of resilience or mood/cognition enhancing food is of extreme value.

According to the world-wide web, high tryptophan (Trp) containing foods (e.g. chicken, soybeans, cereals, tuna, nuts, and bananas) improve mood. Trp is an essential amino acid and a precursor of serotonin, a monoamine that plays a central role in the regulation of emotion, mood and cognition. It is hypothesized that in mood disorders like depression central serotonin levels are low. Although ‘Trp-containing food for mood’ appears as an attractive concept to build resilience, it is likely that there is a delicate balance between Trp levels in food and optimal effects on mood and cognition, and that this delicate balance is influenced by the serotonergic state of the individual. Furthermore, while there is a correlation between high Trp levels in food and mood improvement, it is not as straightforward such that eating a bunch of bananas each day will help you get a better mood.

Hence, this review provides an overview of the effects of varying levels of food-derived Trp on mood and cognition in healthy individuals, and individuals at risk for mood disorders. We also discuss the effects of plant extracts with a modest ‘antidepressant’ functional profile.

Together the studies suggest that there is an inverted U-shaped curve for plasma Trp levels with low and too high Trp levels impairing cognition, and moderate to high Trp levels improving cognition. This relationship is found for both healthy and vulnerable subjects. Whereas this relationship may also exist for mood, the inverted U-shaped curve for plasma Trp levels and mood may be based on different Trp concentrations in healthy versus vulnerable individuals. That is, there is a much more profound decrease in mood of vulnerable subjects compared to healthy subjects in the lower brain Trp range.

When brain Trp levels are in the optimum range, mood in vulnerable subjects is comparable with mood in healthy subjects. And when Trp levels are further elevated, positive mood effects are detected with small increases in vulnerable healthy individuals, and only with large increases in healthy subjects.  Finally, mood in both healthy and vulnerable subjects is negatively affected when Trp levels are excessively high.

Ultimately, insight in the concentrations of Trp and other serotonergic components in food having beneficial effects on mood and cognition in healthy, but particularly vulnerable, subjects may help the nutrition industry to adapt food to support our mood and cognition.

This paper is freely available for one month via the following link: journals.cambridge.org/ns/dec13

Nutrition Society Paper of the Month

Each month a paper is selected by one of the Editors of the five Nutrition Society Publications (British Journal of NutritionPublic Health NutritionNutrition Research ReviewsProceedings of the Nutrition Society and Journal of Nutritional Science). This paper is freely available for one month.

via Food-derived serotonergic modulators: effects on mood and cognition « Medicine « Cambridge Journals Blog.

Nudge children to eat more vegetables

Children in lunchline

The November Nutrition Society Paper of the Month is from Public Health Nutrition and is entitled ‘Vegetable variety: an effective strategy to increase vegetable choice in children’

Do you remember the last time you were at a buffet and regretted not trying everything? All of the tempting varieties of foods to try make resistance difficult! Researchers from the ETH Zürich have now shown that exactly this effect can be used strategically to improve children’s food choices: variety truly is the spice of life, even when it comes to vegetables! When given a variety of healthy choices, children choose a more balanced and nutrient-rich meal.

For this recent study, 100 children aged 7 to 10 years old were invited to the laboratory to select and serve themselves a meal from a small buffet of fake foods (The Fake Food Buffet*). The foods on the “buffet” included chicken strips and pasta, along with the vegetable choices of cooked carrots and beans. Children were randomly assigned to the experimental conditions: they could either serve one vegetable with the meal or they were offered both vegetables.

The children in the group that were offered two vegetables instead of only one served themselves significantly more vegetables. Interestingly, however, they did not serve themselves a meal with higher calorie content. This means that the children offered two vegetables had a higher proportion of energy from vegetables, composing a more nutrient-dense meal. Even children that reported not liking these vegetables served themselves more veggies if they were offered two types rather than one.

So why did children choose more vegetables when offered two instead of only one? Researchers explain that this occurs due to a ‘consumption norm’. This theory suggests that if children are presented with several different foods to choose and serve from, they will serve themselves at least a taste of all of the dishes. Thus, when children are given the choice of more varieties of healthy foods, in the end, they serve themselves a more nutrient-rich meal.

Researchers conclude from this experiment that offering a variety of vegetables to children might be a simple and effective strategy to nudge them to eat more vegetables and healthier meals, not just at home, but also in school cafeterias.

*The Fake Food Buffet is a validated and novel method that allows for the study of environmental influences on food choice under well-controlled laboratory conditions. Dr. Bucher together with the team at the ETH Zürich, developed this method and conducts ongoing research to explore the influence of environmental changes on meal composition in adults and children.

This paper is freely available for one month via the following link: journals.cambridge.org/ns/nov13

Posted on behalf of Tamara Bucher

Nutrition Society Paper of the Month

Each month a paper is selected by one of the Editors of the five Nutrition Society Publications (British Journal of NutritionPublic Health NutritionNutrition Research ReviewsProceedings of the Nutrition Society and Journal of Nutritional Science). This paper is freely available for one month.

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