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By Madelyn Fernstrom

If you’re a home cook, there’s some good news about your health. A new study suggests that people who cook at home most of the time consume generally healthier meals with fewer calories. An especially surprising observation about home cooks: they tended to consume fewer calories even when eating in restaurants. 

These data might have a strong implication for the typical American, who increasingly cooks at home less —for a variety of reasons.

Purchasing foods prepared away from home and restaurant meals have been previously reported to contain more calories and fewer nutrients, usually with higher amounts of sugars, fats, and salt. The study from the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Bloomberg School of Public Health of Johns Hopkins University supports the flip side of this: home cooked meals tend to have fewer calories and more nutrients.

Researchers examined the self-reported food records obtained from more than 9,000 adults, aged 20 and older. The study, published in the journal Public Health Nutrition Monday, used the data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), which collects estimates of food intake data using detailed phone interviews of food consumption over both short term (past 24 hours) and long term (past 30 days) times.

Nearly half (48 percent) of the study participants reported cooking dinner at home six to seven nights per week, while roughly 8 percent of respondents said they cooked dinner once a week or less. When comparing the differences between the two “most” and “least” often cooking at home, two important associations were revealed: the most frequent home cooks consumed around 200 fewer calories daily, and around 16 grams of sugar (4 teaspoons).

Of particular note was the finding that people who reported cooking at home six to seven nights also had a strong association with a lower calorie intake when they ate out. This suggests that the home cooks have a mindfulness of healthy and nutrient dense meal preparation along with portion control, since these qualities seemed to be maintained when dining outside the home.

While it’s a challenge for most people to cook at home daily, the good news of the study is that even cooking at home 2-3 days per week was associated with improved diet quality.

To translate these findings into action, people must address the very real barriers of regular home cooking. These include lack of time, lack of money, and lack of cooking skills. Improving even one of these can likely result in healthier eating, both inside the home and out.