By Erin Cochrane, Sam Gilchrist, and Anna Linden (Department of Psychology, Saint Olaf College, Northfield, MN)
Aging gracefully isn’t always a sweet process. The World Health Organization warns that malnutrition is a looming issue for our aging population1, but sensory losses can make food less appealing and increase risk for undereating and weight loss2. However, eating a variety of foods can boost consumption of micronutrients and help to prevent age-related diseases like osteoporosis and diabetes2. The recent uptick in subscription cooking services like Plated and Hello Fresh, which deliver fresh ingredients to customers’ homes, suggests that Americans are beginning to take charge of their own nutritional needs. Taking an active role in preparing our own food has been shown to benefit physical, cognitive, and emotional wellbeing as we get older. It seems as though healthy aging could boil down to spending more time in the kitchen, so here are five ways cooking can spice up your daily routine!
1. Increases physicality
The health benefits start even before any cooking happens! Before you can cook, you need to get ingredients; getting out to shop for your ingredients is a great way to add some exercise into a daily routine. Food preparation has repeatedly been associated with increased levels of physical activity and self-reported health-status4. The physical advantages of cooking don’t stop there, as research found that those who cook for themselves at least five times a week also had the highest rates of survivorship in a group of individuals over the age of 653. This was consistent even accounting for physical health and nutrition knowledge awareness, showing that anyone can benefit from cooking more of their own meals!
If possible, try to buy ingredients on a day-to-day basis. This will increase your daily exercise as well as ensuring you get the freshest ingredients.
2. Helps social and emotional health
Cooking classes can keep kitchen skills from getting stale: they not only improve nutritional habits in older adults, but psychological wellbeing as well5. According to The Guardian, these community classes are increasingly important in the face of budget cuts to programs like Meals on Wheels, and they provide an added bonus of increased independence6. Studies have also shown a relationship between home-based food activities and a strong sense of self, especially when connecting older adults to aspects of their heritage. Cooking traditional dishes and sharing them with a community can promote feelings of belonging and self-efficacy, in addition to joy at mastering new skills7,8.
Look into volunteering for community meals at local charity organizations, or invite friends and family over for a dinner party!
3. Improves diet quality
Cooking classes are beneficial for mental health and can also improve the quality of your meals! Researchers have found that older adults enrolled in cooking classes include more vegetables and fiber within their diets, which are associated with a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease5. The same study also showed that 98% of participants improved their overall nutritional knowledge, which is crucial to combatting the malnutrition of aging and controlling what one eats. It is also important to note that when you cook for yourself, you control what you eat. To boot, having higher control over caloric consumption is associated with improved quality of health throughout life9.
Eating healthier means knowing the nutritional value of the ingredients in your meals!
4. Maintains mental fitness
Cooking can also preserve your cognitive functioning with age. Research indicates that cognitive abilities generally decrease throughout the lifetime, with some individuals experiencing considerable losses in executive functioning10. These are the skills needed for planning, multitasking, and setting goals – the very abilities that keep you independent!
Don’t stew over that, though, because cooking may be able to offset these declines in cognition. Studies show:
- Monitoring cooking times, prioritizing certain dishes, and setting a table forces cooks to use their prospective memories
- The attentional demands of cooking have also been shown to transfer to similar tasks requiring constant updating or shifting attention
You can toast to that!
Try cooking a new recipe that involves many steps and challenges you to plan ahead.
5. Adapts to your unique situation
If you are no longer living independently, certain cooking modifications may serve up similar benefits. For those with Alzheimer’s disease and mild cognitive impairment, virtual cooking games like ‘kitchen and cooking’ have increased both speed and accuracy of executive functioning11. Updating your kitchen technology may also offset physical limitations and other age-associated hazards. For example, while elderly individuals are at increased risk for burns and fire, implementing oven sensors and cooking-safe systems can shut off power when needed12.
Third, meal delivery programs can replace traditional shopping for homebound adults. Companies like Blue Apron and Chef’d deliver pre-portioned ingredients and recipes to your home, so there is no need to drive. These modifications can keep you self-sufficient and safe in the kitchen.
If you feel you can no longer cook, look into virtual apps or meal delivery services to help support you!
Cooking for yourself provides more than just delicious, nutritious food; it is a cognitively demanding task that builds up physical health and social connections, helping to combat the specific deficits of aging. Dare we say it is a secret ingredient to aging successfully?
What benefits has cooking given to you? Share your thoughts, stories, and favorite recipes with us in the comments below!
For further reading:
1World Health Organization (2018). Nutrition for older persons. Retrieved from http://www.who.int/nutrition/topics/ageing/en/index2.html
2Boyce, J. M., & Shone, G. R. (2006). Effects of ageing on smell and taste. Postgraduate Medical Journal, 82, 239-241. http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/pgmj.2005.039453
3Chen, R. C., Lee, M.-S., Chang, Y.-H., & Wahlqvist, M. L. (2011). Cooking frequency may enhance survival in Taiwanese elderly. Public Health Nutrition, 15, 1142-1149. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S136898001200136X
4Thompson, J. L., Bentley, G., Davis, M., Coulson, J., Stathi, A., & Fox, K. R. (2011). Food shopping habits, physical activity and health-related indicators among adults aged ≥70 years. Public Health Nutrition, 14, 1640-1649. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/s1368980011000747
5Jyväkorpi, S. K., Pitkälä, K. H., Kautiainen, H., Puranen, T. M., Laakkonen, M. L., & Suominen, M. H. (2014). Nutrition education and cooking classes improve diet quality, nutrient intake, and psychological well-being of home-dwelling older people – a pilot study. Journal of Aging Research and Clinical Practice, 1, 4-8. http://dx.doi.org/10.14283/jarcp.2014.22
6Bernhardt, C. (2012). One foot in the gravy: the rise of cookery classes for older men. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/society/2012/apr/10/cookery-classesolder-men
7Plastow, N. A., Atwal, A., & Gilhooly, M. (2014). Food activities and identity maintenance in old age: A systematic review and meta-synthesis. Aging & Mental Health, 19, 667-678. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13607863.2014.971707
8Kullberg, K., Björklund, A., Sidenvall, B., & Åberg, A. C. (2011). ‘I start my day by thinking about what we’re going to have for dinner’ – A qualitative study on approaches to food-related activities among elderly men with somatic diseases. Scandinavian Journal of Caring Sciences, 25, 227-234. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1471-6712.2010.00813.x
9Willcox, B. J., Willcox, D. C., Todoriki, H., Fujiyoshi, A., Yano, K., He, Q., Curb, J. D. and Suzuki, M. (2007), Caloric restriction, the traditional Okinawan diet, and healthy aging. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1114, 434–455. http://dx.doi.org/10.1196/annals.1396.037
10Braver, T. S., & West, R. (2008). Working memory, executive control, and aging. In F. I. M. Craik & T. A. Salthouse (Eds.), The handbook of aging and cognition (3rd ed., pp. 311–372). New York, NY: Psychology Press.
11Manera, V., Petit, P.-D., Derreumaux, A., Orvieto, I., Romagnoli, M., Lyttle, G., … Robert, P. H. (2015). “Kitchen and cooking,” a serious game for mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease: A pilot study. Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, 7. http://dx.doi.org/10.3389/fnagi.2015.00024
12Yared, R., & Abdulrazak, B. (2018). Risk analysis and assessment to enhance safety in a smart kitchen. Fire Technology, 1-23. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10694-017-0696-5
Erin Cochrane is a senior at St. Olaf College, currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Biology and Neuroscience. She is interested in exploring the relationship between genetics and health, and in the future hopes to pursue graduate studies in either genetic counseling or medicine.
Anna Linden is a senior Psychology major at St. Olaf College, concentrating in Statistics. Her interests lie in the field of Human Factors and data analytics, and she’s looking forward to graduate school in the near future.
Samuel Gilchrist is a senior Psychology major at St. Olaf College. He is interested in the field of Behavioral Economics and studying the psychology behind personal financial decisions. In the future, he hopes to find a job in the field of advertising.