There’s No Place Like Home: Why Cooking at Home May Be the Answer to America’s Obesity Problem

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By Graham Salinger               

Changes to demographics and the growth of the restaurant industry have shifted eating habits in a way that has devalued home -cooked meals and contributed to growing health problems, argues  Craig A. Lambert in the August issue of Harvard Magazine.

Craig Lambert argues that the growth in the restaurant industry has contributed to health problems. (Photo credit: Jim Harrison)

Americans are eating out more than ever before.  The National Restaurant Association reports that people spend nearly twice as much of their food budget at restaurant than they did in 1955. Furthermore, restaurant industry sales have increased from$US42.5 billion  in 1970 to an anticipated US$604 billion dollars this year. Lambert argues that  demographic changes can help explain this increased reliance on  restaurant  to supply meals.  “Compared to the 1950s, there are now relatively more divorced adults, more single-parent and single-person households, and more two-income households whose earners haven’t time to cook dinner,” he explains.

Meanwhile, the nutritional value that consumers get out of their meals has declined, leader to an increase in health problems. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that one –third of the adult population in the United States is obese and that there are 12.5 million obese children in the United States. In addition to the prevalence of obesity doubling since the 1980’s, the CDC notes a rise in the number of people with diabetes . Home- cooking advocates argue that these health trends result from people eating out, rather than of having home- cooked meals.

Demographic changes are only half of the equation, however.  The increase in fast food chains is one reason why more American’s are not eating healthy meals. Locally owned eateries that offer fresh ingredients are often driven out of business by chains that rely on cheaper ingredients. “The basic ingredients of unhealthy food are incredibly cheap,” explains Walter Willett the chairman of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. “Unfortunately, [fast food] has had an adverse effect on nutritional status and the obesity epidemic, Americans value quantity over quality: if you get a bigger serving, that’s value,” Willet concludes. John Willoughby, former executive editor of Gourmet magazine, agrees that fast food has replaced home cooked meals and has contributed to higher rates of obesity. “Fast-food joints are the enemy of home cooking” he emphasizes. “There are studies now showing that if you eat a constant diet of fast food, you get addicted to the high fat and sugar content of it, just as if it were a drug—so food without that content doesn’t satisfy you.”

Increasingly, Americans are only satisfied with bigger portions of food, points out Lambert. The obesity epidemic in the United States “owes much to large portions…” he argues. Food portions offered by restaurants began to rise in the 1970’s and have steadily increased since the 1980’s according to researchers Lisa Young and Marion Nestle of New York University.  Fast food establishments aren’t the only ones guilty of promoting unhealthy eating habits, argues Lambert. He points out that many fine dining restaurants are better at marketing their restaurant than offering healthy food, “foodstuffs become the raw material of art, not nutrition,” he explains. “The eating experience decouples itself almost entirely from food’s functional attributes: sustenance, nourishment, health”.

For many Americans their closest relationship with home cooking comes from watching celebrity chefs on television, points out Mollie Katzen­­  co-creator of Harvard’s Food Literacy Project and co-author of Eat, Drink, and Weigh Less. But John Willoughby points out that these cooking shows contribute to people relying on eating out because they don’t act as instructional shows but rather “these are professional chefs doing things in the kitchen that you cannot do—and that’s not what home cooking is about.” Craig Lambert agrees that cooking shows make people feel self conscious about their own cooking and argues that the “central challenge for home-cooking advocates is to give people confidence that—much of the time, anyway—they can make better food at home than they are likely to get in most restaurants”.

Graham Salinger is a research intern for the Nourishing the Planet project.

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