Opinion | How Covid-19 Is Making Millions of Americans Healthier


One of the biggest barriers to cooking frequently is that it takes practice and time to gain proficiency and ease. That initial training time has simply not been available to most Americans, as the pace of life has intensified over the decades. Nor has there been a perceived need to cook because prepared and fast foods were readily available.

The pandemic has put everything on pause, and almost every “nonessential” worker, employed or unemployed, is now enrolled in a de facto home economics course. Cooking is at the top of the curriculum. The course will be months or years long. Even if “stay-at-home” orders are lifted, cooking will be the most cost-effective way to eat during a deep recession.

An increase in the frequency of cooking does not necessarily mean we are getting healthier during the pandemic. Tragedy and fear are making us stress-eat, as we drown ourselves in tubs of ice cream or binge bake. Moreover, with gyms closed and movement restricted, many of us are now more sedentary than ever. But we are acquiring an ancient skill that has been shown to help people live better and longer. If we apply that skill with greater frequency over the long run, it could reduce our risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and stroke.

A poor diet is the biggest underlying cause of mortality in America, and that poor diet is largely delivered by large food companies like Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Chick-fil-A and McDonald’s. Just 10 dietary factors (such as high intake of processed meat and refined grains) are estimated to cause more than 1,000 deaths per day from heart disease, stroke and diabetes alone. More than 100 million Americans have diabetes or pre-diabetes and 122 million have cardiovascular disease.

Frequent cooking could make a difference in outcomes — on average, people who frequently cook at home eat less fat and sugar than other people. Most restaurants and many large food companies, after all, use levels of salt, sugar and fat that would be inconceivable for home cooks.

Cooking as an element of good health is starting to catch on. A number of medical schools, such as George Washington University and Tulane University, now have culinary schools or culinary programs.

That need has never been higher, since the coronavirus has been most threatening to people with food-related chronic diseases. About 90 percent of those who become seriously ill due to the virus have an underlying condition — hypertension and diabetes being the most common.

Once life rebounds, we may go back to our previous ways, but our palates will have experienced a reset and our hands would have acquired an artful skill. Family ties would have strengthened for many, as cooking is a group activity and is deeply fulfilling and nurturing. There will be many lessons from the coronavirus pandemic, but we would be wise not to forget this one. This newfound proficiency could be lifesaving.

Hans Taparia is a food entrepreneur and clinical associate professor at NYU Stern School of Business.

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