For many, baking has always been a relaxing retreat. A time to de-stress, focus and, well, eat.
But cooking can also become a therapeutic pastime, and some experts suggest it could be useful for people’s well-being. In a 2018 study by the National Institutes of Health, researchers looked at “cooking interventions” in therapeutic and rehabilitative settings.
While very little evidence linked cooking to better mental health, authors found it could “positively influence psychosocial outcomes,” although the evidence was preliminary and limited.
“Further qualitative and rigorous quantitative research are needed to identify mechanisms by which cooking interventions may improve psychosocial outcomes,” authors noted.
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Author and health psychology expert Linda Wasmer Andrews wrote that culinary therapy in the U.S. has been used by several mental health professionals to combat “behavioural health conditions, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, ADHD and addiction.”
“One obvious link between cooking and mental health is nutrition. It’s easier to control the quality of your diet when you prepare much of the food yourself. And there’s growing recognition that choosing a high-quality diet plays a major role in keeping your brain healthy.”
Cooking and mental health
But can cooking a healthy entree really help your mental health?
In a recent post for Psychology Today, Susan Krauss Whitbourne noted a special on CNN that suggested bringing therapists into the home to help you prepare a meal. The weekend special, Staying Well, implied being more mindful when you cook (with a therapist present) could be beneficial to your mental health.
But Whitbourne said there is very little evidence to suggest bringing a therapist home is the best way to achieve this.
“The real test of culinary therapy would involve controlled studies in which matched groups of patients are randomly assigned to treatment vs. either delayed treatment or some other type of therapy such as the conventional cognitive-behavioural approach,” she explained.
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The author and professor emerita at the University of Massachusetts Amherst added that food-related activities like shopping, cooking and planning could be useful for some.
Seeing it in action
The 519 — a non-profit organization for Toronto’s LGBTQ2 communities — currently offers a cooking program for trans people of colour.
Soofia Mahmood, director of strategic communications and executive planning at The 519, said the project focuses on a peer leadership model. Four participants are peer leaders in training and other trans people of colour are invited on a weekly basis to take part in activities around cooking.
“Cooking is used as the core activity but an extensive program is built around that, including free training opportunities for diverse skill development on various personal and professional development topics, including cooking, anti-oppression, self-care, team building, harm reduction, HIV and relevant legislation,” she said. “Peers build on their existing lived experiences and develop new and exciting skills.”
Mahmood added that racialized trans women are one of the most vulnerable communities in the city and also experience food insecurity among other barriers.
“Food is a great way to connect the communities, who find shared experiences over food and connect with community in a safe and positive environment,” she explained. “Our program focuses on emotional, mental, physical well-being, community building, increasing employability, and providing opportunities for peer leaders to take up community leadership.”
The program is also working on developing a cookbook around safe sex and healthy eating.
She said the program works because it focuses on nutritional needs.
“The meals planned and recipes developed also focus on healthy living for trans people of colour with similar lived experiences.”
She said that for Canadians in general, classes like these are important for community building and mental health.
“Cooking together connects people on multiple levels — it gives people the opportunity to share and celebrate their culture and provides a way to exchange cultural wisdom connected with food. It also develops collective understanding of nutrition in addition to building a sense of community that is important in the context of emotional and mental well-being.”