Eating Homemade Meals Cuts Diabetes Risk, Study Says

Written by Sari Harrar

With commentary by Geng Zong, Ph.D., a research fellow at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, Massachusetts

Meals made at home are better for your blood sugar, a new study finds. But research shows Americans spend less time cooking than ever.

When Harvard researchers tracked more than 99,000 people for up to 36 years, they found that those who ate homemade lunches and dinners at least 11 times a week were 13% less likely to develop diabetes than people who ate home-prepared meals less often.

“Cooking with whole unprocessed food would be better than ready-to-eat, processed, or packaged food or snacks,” lead researcher Geng Zong, Ph.D., a research fellow at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, Massachusetts, told OnTrack Diabetes.

In contrast, “the nutrient composition of out-of-home food tends to be worse,” Zong says. Away-from-home meals, studies show, usually feature less fruit, vegetables and whole grains—all sources of fiber and nutrients that may help reduce diabetes risk. And they deliver more calories, carbohydrates, sugar and fat.    

Zong analyzed the eating habits and health of nearly 58,000 women in the Nurses’ Health Study and more than 41,000 men in the Health Professionals Follow-up Study between 1986 and 2012. None of the volunteers had type 2 diabetes at the start of the study. Risk for diabetes was 13% lower in people who had 11 to 14 home-made lunches and dinners weekly, compared to those who had less than six. The study was presented earlier this month at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions 2015 in Orlando, FL.

But Zong acknowledges that finding time to cook can be tough. “The trend for eating commercially prepared meals in restaurants or as take-out in the United States has increased significantly over the last 50 years,” he says. “Action is needed to improve the quality of foods available from commercial sources, which should not only be quick, but also healthy.” 

Until that happens, incorporating healthy convenience foods and easy cooking techniques into your kitchen repertoire is the best way to turn out fresh meals that are blood sugar-friendly, says registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator Gretchen Scalpi, RD, CDN, CDE, author of The EVERYTHING Guide to Preventing and Managing Prediabetes, 2nd edition (Adams Media, 2011). “It’s a mind shift to stop thinking of lunch or dinner as something you get at a restaurant, a fast-food place or from a package you heat up in the microwave,” Scalpi says. “But eating more home-prepared meals is the one step that can really make or break efforts to lose weight and improve blood sugar control. And with a little planning and the right ingredients, success is easier than people think.”

The Kitchen Versus the Clock

Recent studies show that Americans spend less time preparing meals than ever before – and that while we eat eight out of ten meals at home, less than half are actually made in our own kitchens according to a 2014 report from The NPD Group.  And a recent University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill study of more than 38,000 people found that the amount of time Americans spend on food prep has shrunk by more than 40 minutes since the 1960s.

“People I work with who have type 2 diabetes or prediabetes often say they just don’t have time to cook, “notes Scalpi, of Beacon, NY. “Simple steps like keeping boneless, skinless chicken breasts and sliced fresh or plain frozen vegetables in the fridge or freezer makes fast dinners possible. Add low-sodium diced tomatoes, some onions if you’d like and you have a meal.”

An electric pressure cooker or a slow cooker also make home cooking simple and fast. “You need little to no fat and you don’t have to stand over the stove,” she says. “For lunches, bring leftovers or rely on healthy convenience foods like bagged salad greens, tuna from a pouch or a carton of low-fat plain yogurt or cottage cheese or a low-fat cheese stick.”

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