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Can Cook: Put cooking skills back on the health agenda

Research from City University London demonstrates benefit of cooking initiatives in promoting healthy lifestyles.
by Hollie Jenkins

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City University London researchers are calling for more government support for initiatives aimed at improving cooking skills across the UK, after a recent study in Liverpool demonstrated the powerful impact cooking skills can have on promoting healthy eating and lifestyles.

Can Cook is a social enterprise operating in the Liverpool area and encompassing a number of activities aimed at improving cooking skills, such as cooking classes aimed at both adults and school pupils, as well as a secondary school competition.

City University London research shows that key health and lifestyle benefits arising from participation in cooking sessions for both children and adults included increases in both vegetable and fruit consumption, better knowledge about healthy eating and cooking techniques and confidence in handling and preparing food, as well as exposure to new food and tastes.

The research follows recent calls from independent government advisors for NHS professionals to promote healthy living to patients more regularly. Professor Martin Caraher, from the Centre for Food Policy at City University London, says that as well as NHS professionals promoting healthy eating, it is essential that consumers have the skills to create healthy food themselves.

"David Cameron was recently quoted as saying that he enjoys cooking with his children, but sadly this is not often the case in many family homes. One of the key drivers in the increasing obesity problem is the fact that people are less exposed to situations where they can improve their cooking skills. They have become isolated from food. With cooking classes in schools declining, there is a need for the Government to ensure that cooking skills are still on the agenda.

"Ideally health professionals would be able to refer patients to these types of social initiatives that would help people improve their lifestyles."

The research showed the powerful impact that knowing how to cook can have on eating habits. Amongst participants in the secondary school cooking competition, there was a significant increase in the number of students eating fruit and vegetables, with a 22.9% increase in the percentage of pupils eating vegetables and a 27.5% increase in the numbers of pupils eating vegetables four times a day.

Following the secondary school sessions there was also an 11% increase in the number of students eating frui and a 12% increase in their vegetable intake, while 30% of students said their eating habits had changed since the sessions.

"The range of meals cooked in the home following attendance at a Can Cook session were less fatty and less sugary than prepared previously, and there was less use of microwave and instant meals, suggesting an increased knowledge of healthy eating," says Professor Caraher.

Evaluation of sessions for primary school students demonstrated that 81% of students felt that they had learnt about healthy eating through the session. Adult sessions were also well received with 89% indicating the session had encouraged them to cook and use more fresh ingredients.

Professor Caraher says: "Our message, based on our research, is that health promotion needs to go beyond messages about what healthy eating is and also focus on making sure people have the cooking skills that will allow them to affordably eat well."

Robbie Davison, Director of Can Cook says: "The solution is a simple one. Give children and young people access to good facilities and training and teach them to cook the healthier version of what they know and want to eat and you will get change - this is our method and it works."

A full copy of the report can be found here.

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City, University of London is an independent member institution of the University of London. Established by Royal Charter in 1836, the University of London consists of 18 independent member institutions with outstanding global reputations and several prestigious central academic bodies and activities.