Cooking for the sake of sanity, soul, and gut health

By Tatiana Diacova, MS, RDN

Thinking about how Shakespeare wrote “King Lear” while in quarantine and feeling completely useless? You are not alone! The pressure of staying productive and developing new hobbies is upon us all right now. But whether you decide to ignore this pressure or not, there is one hobby that is worth a try – cooking!

The good side of contagion

In the April episode of NIH’s “Speaking of Science” podcast, Dr. Nicole Farmer discussed how her 2018 review article on the link between cooking and mental health suddenly took on a whole new meaning in the midst of the current pandemic. Her survey of the relevant papers demonstrated that cooking may have mental health benefits such as boosting self-esteem and providing a sense of accomplishment.

Similar results were observed in a prior study exploring how cooking therapy (daily group cooking activities) for 2 weeks improved mood and cognitive ability in the elderly subjects with dementia. What’s more, this therapy turned out to be pretty “contagious”! The study took place at an assisted living facility, but not all the residents enrolled to participate. Interestingly, even the individuals that did not enroll seemed to benefit from the intervention. The delicious aromas and joyful sounds drew everyone to the cooking area where they interacted, shared meals together, and even made new friends. Now, that sounds pretty amazing, doesn’t it?! Researchers, including Dr. Farmer, are now planning to investigate whether these mental health benefits persist in a more isolated cooking environment, like individual households.

The bigger brain phenomenon

According to another interesting study published in 2017 in Italy, cooking may cause significant physical changes in our brains. This study compared the brains and cognitive abilities of 11 head chefs to individuals with no special cooking abilities. In addition to looking at memory, attention, verbal ability and control, the researchers also measured brain volume. They found that some parts of the chefs’ brains were larger compared to the non-chef controls. The areas of the brain that differed the most were two specific clusters in the cerebellum. The cerebellum, aka the “little brain”, is located at the back of the skull and is responsible for motor control. Interestingly, the same part of the brain appears to be better developed in musicians, rock climbers and basketball players as well. The fact that all these activities require synchronization, coordination, prediction and execution at the same time may just be the reason for this bigger brain phenomenon!

Is cooking really what made us human?

Cooking can affect our brains on an individual scale, but it has also been proposed to have played a crucial role in our evolutionary history. Current evidence suggests that our ancestors started cooking at about the same time they learned how to make fire (500,000 years ago). However, a new theory by Dr. Wrangham, a biologic anthropologist at Harvard University, challenged this by pointing out the major differences between our ancestor Homo erectus (first appeared 1.6-1.9 million years ago) and its predecessor H. habilis (lived 2.3 – 1.6 million years ago). H. erectus had much smaller teeth and much larger brains. According to Dr. Wrangham, these differences are due to H. erectus’ ability to cook! He claims that they would need larger brains to come up with something as innovative as cooking and smaller teeth to chew on partially pre-digested (cooked) meals vs. the completely raw diets of their predecessors. However, the evidence to support this hypothesis is scarce.

Cheffing for a trillion

The importance of cooking to human life was emphasized by Dr. Turnbaugh’s lab group at the University of California in San Francisco. They looked at how consuming cooked vs. raw meat and tubers affected the gut microbiome composition. They found that cooking meat did not make much difference in the types of microbes living in the gut, while cooking tubers did. Gut microbiota composition was much less diverse following the consumption of raw tubers vs. the cooked ones. This observation suggests that cooking foods like potatoes might be a way to pre-digest (break apart) some of their carbohydrate molecules into smaller pieces before they get to the gut. Not all microbes in the gut can feed on the intact carb molecules, so breaking them apart might help feed a wider range of microbial types, increasing the overall microbiota diversity (higher diversity means better health).

To summarize, cooking can have many unexpected effects on human health, like improving our cognitive abilities, making our brains bigger, and even adding diversity to our gut microbiome. So, getting up in the morning and making that omelet might not be enough to compare yourself to Shakespeare, but it can surely be a start of a very human and a very healthy hobby!

Peer-edited by Erin Coffman

Picture credit: Wallpaper Flare

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