A lot of us consider the healthfulness of our food choices, but the way we eat might also impact our health. The recent Cook Together event at Tufts’ Friedman School showed the way.
Canada’s new Food Guide, released in January of this year, broke the mold of typical dietary guidelines by emphasizing the importance of how food is eaten. Their recommendations to “Be mindful of your eating habits,” “Cook more often,” “Enjoy your food,” and “Eat meals with others” sound more like advice we might hear from our mothers than dietary guidance endorsed by a government agency. But the new Canadian Food Guide may be on to something that the Dietary Guidelines for Americans have yet to embrace: social health. According to Michael Hebb, member of the Tufts Friedman School Advisory Board and founder of the Death Over Dinner movement, it is the social aspect of cooking and dining, along with healthful dietary choices, that increases longevity.
Every week at the RoundGlass firm in Bellevue, Washington, Hebb and his colleagues put this concept of social health to practice during “Cook Together” sessions attended by RoundGlass’ tech employees. Hebb says the goal for these events is to “get people excited about eating real foods – real whole foods.” The Cook Together team, comprised of nutritionist, Keri Romerdahl, and renowned chef, Jesse Barber, also aims to create a collaborative and hands-on experience to break people out of their solitary work environments and build new relationships.
With American adults spending “over 11 hours per day listening to, watching, reading or generally interacting with media,” according to a July 2018 Nielsen Company article, many of us end up eating meals alone in front of our computer and cell phone screens or while on the go. Numerous studies have linked eating alone to negative health outcomes such as poor diet quality1, lower dietary variety2 and subsequent decline in cognitive functioning in the elderly3, higher BMIs4, increased risk for metabolic syndrome5, and even depression6,7. Perhaps Hebb is right about the value of social health.
When Hebb first joined the Friedman School advisory board, he asked, “Where’s the kitchen?” and pointed out that the social aspect of cooking and eating was missing at Friedman. With this in mind, Tufts has spent the last year-and-a-half exploring “farm to culinary traditions and contradictions,” according to Tim Griffin, director of the Friedman School’s Agriculture, Food and Environment (AFE) program and faculty mentor for the Tufts Food Lab (featured in the May 2018 issue of the Sprout). The Food Lab recently invited Hebb’s team to host a Cook Together session at Tufts. Griffin said it is the first of many events to come that will be focused on conversations and cooking together.
At the event, Romerdahl shared a brief nutrition lesson about whole grains with a group of 20 students, staff, faculty, and community members. Key messages from the lesson included:
- listen to your own body to determine if grains are right for you;
- vary your grains rather than sticking only to one or two types;
- rinse, sprout, soak, and/or ferment grains to remove dirt and toxins and to increase nutritional benefits; and
- choose whole, rather than refined, grains – to eat “the way nature intended us to eat.”
Romerdahl, who is responsible for delivering the nutrition lessons for these events, believes there is much more to health than the science behind nutrition. She explained that if nutritionists only focus on the technical aspects of nutrition when working with clients, they will be missing a huge part of what leads to healthful dietary choices. They should also keep in mind the social, creative, and personal aspects of nutrition and help their clients develop healthier relationships with each of these areas.
The Cook Together model brings all these pieces together. At the beginning of the event at Tufts, participants were mostly strangers. However, after donning aprons and wielding chef’s knives, the group easily fell into a rhythm of conversation, laughter, and taste-testing. All the while, chef Barber and Hebb went around the room providing instructions and demonstrations for how to properly chop the gnarling tendrils of red chicory lettuce, break down a whole roasted chicken, and hand-roll cavatelli pasta. An hour-and-a-half later, the feast was ready, and new friends were seated side-by-side enjoying the fruits of their labor along with glasses of wine.
Events like these clearly bring people together and get them engaged in discussions about food and health. Beyond this, the act of cooking together and socializing may produce meaningful benefits for schools, organizations, and communities. Since becoming a partner at RoundGlass, Hebb has observed more informal conversations between colleagues, more engagement, more hellos, and more laughter – all of which he attributes to the Cook Together events. Hebb also believes that participating in a creative activity such as cooking with others has inspired a shift in thinking for “techies who tend to be highly left brained.” From a human resources perspective, changes such as these can make a huge impact on productivity. Hebb reported less drama among employees, fewer sick days, and overall lower attrition rates.
While these anecdotes imply many benefits of social health, Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Friedman School, who attended the Cook Together event at Tufts, pointed out that such beliefs currently lack supporting scientific evidence. A handful of systematic reviews focused on these topics discuss the difficulty of measuring social and nutritional health in relation to social capital8,9,10. This presents a clear opportunity for collaborations between nutrition researchers and social scientists. In the meantime, the team at RoundGlass is conducting a study to attempt to measure these effects. While we’re waiting for the evidence to come in, it couldn’t hurt to follow Hebb’s advice to “engage in celebration and have a little fun” in the kitchen, or, as chef Barber put it after tying on his apron, “Let’s get dirty together!”
For more information about the Cook Together event, check out the Cook Together Blog site. This site currently links participants with recipes and photos from each event. Hebb hopes to eventually use the site to connect consumers with scientific research from the academic community and inspiring celebrity chefs like those seen on popular food shows.
- Chae, W., Ju, Y. J., Shin, J., Jang, S. I., & Park, E. C. (2018). Association between eating behaviour and diet quality: eating alone vs. eating with others. Nutr J, 17(1), 117. doi:10.1186/s12937-018-0424-0
- Tanaka, I., Kitamura, A., Seino, S., Nishi, M., Tomine, Y., Taniguchi, Y., . . . Shinkai, S. (2018). [Relationship between eating alone and dietary variety among urban older Japanese adults]. Nihon Koshu Eisei Zasshi, 65(12), 744-754. doi:10.11236/jph.65.12_744
- Li, C. L., Tung, H. J., & Yeh, M. C. (2018). Combined effect of eating alone and a poor nutritional status on cognitive decline among older adults in Taiwan. Asia Pac J Clin Nutr, 27(3), 686-694. doi:10.6133/apjcn.092017.05
- Rah, W., So, J., Park, E. C., Lee, S. A., & Jang, S. I. (2018). Association between family dinner and BMI in adults: data from the 2013 to 2015 Korean National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Public Health Nutr, 1-8. doi:10.1017/s1368980018002446
- Kwon, A. R., Yoon, Y. S., Min, K. P., Lee, Y. K., & Jeon, J. H. (2018). Eating alone and metabolic syndrome: A population-based Korean National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2013-2014. Obes Res Clin Pract, 12(2), 146-157. doi:10.1016/j.orcp.2017.09.002
- Kang, Y., Kang, S., Kim, K. J., Ko, H., Shin, J., & Song, Y. M. (2018). The Association between Family Mealtime and Depression in Elderly Koreans. Korean J Fam Med, 39(6), 340-346. doi:10.4082/kjfm.17.0060
- Lee, S. A., Park, E. C., Ju, Y. J., Nam, J. Y., & Kim, T. H. (2016). Is one’s usual dinner companion associated with greater odds of depression? Using data from the 2014 Korean National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Int J Soc Psychiatry, 62(6), 560-568. doi:10.1177/0020764016654505
- Flôr, C. R., Baldoni, N. R., Aquino, J. A., Baldoni, A. O., Fabbro, A. L. D., Figueiredo, R. C., & Oliveira, C. D. L. (2018). What is the association between social capital and diabetes mellitus? A systematic review. Diabetes Metab Syndr, 12(4), 601-605. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29625913. doi:10.1016/j.dsx.2018.03.021
- Iacovou, M., Pattieson, D. C., Truby, H., & Palermo, C. (2013). Social health and nutrition impacts of community kitchens: a systematic review. Public Health Nutr, 16(3), 535-543. doi:10.1017/s1368980012002753
- Mills, S., White, M., Brown, H., Wrieden, W., Kwasnicka, D., Halligan, J., . . . Adams, J. (2017). Health and social determinants and outcomes of home cooking: A systematic review of observational studies. Appetite, 111, 116-134. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2016.12.022
Kelly Cara is a first-year graduate student in the Friedman School Nutrition Data Science program. Her research is focused on health outcomes related to various levels of food processing found in specific dietary patterns. She comes to Tufts after working for eight years in the field of experimental psychology and higher education research and four years in the culinary field as a health supportive chef and instructor.