“At the beginning of the program, there was a big difference between the males and females in their cooking confidence, where the females were more confident at the start of the program. And then by the end of the program, the males and females were both equally confident.”
Dr. Joanna Rees talks to us about her recent research on the effects of taking a healthy cooking class on the mental health and confidence of participants.
Dr. Rees is an Accredited Practicing Dietitian with a background as a chef and sports coach, currently working as a post-doctoral research fellow in the area of gut health. Her particular area of interest is how we should target nutrition as a preventive strategy to tackle population issues such as declining mental and physical health.
Shireen: Coming to us all the way from Australia, Dr. Joanna Rees talks to us about her recent research on the effects of taking a healthy cooking class on mental health and confidence of participants.
Podcasting from Dallas, Texas, I am Shireen. And this is a Yumlish Podcast.
Yumlish is working to empower you to take charge of your health through diet and exercise and reduce the risk of chronic conditions like type two diabetes and heart disease. We hope to share a unique perspective and a culturally relevant approach to managing these chronic conditions with you each week.
Dr. Jo Rees is an accredited practicing dietician with a background as a chef and sports coach, currently working as a postdoctoral research fellow in the area of gut health. Her particular area of interest is how we should target nutrition as a preventative strategy to tackle population issues such as declining mental and physical health.
Welcome Dr. Rees.
Joanna: Lovely to be part of your podcast. Thank you for having me.
Shireen: Absolutely a pleasure. So, Dr. Rees diving right in, can you talk a bit about how you became interested in public health in your academic career and in gut health science in your postdoctoral research, and how did this lead you into your current research?
Joanna: Well, as you mentioned in my introduction, which was wonderful. Thank you. Um, I have a background in cooking from long ago. That's what I used to do. And then, um, from that, when I had my children, I moved into health and fitness and became a sports coach. And so, I've always had an interest in nutrition and healthy eating, which led me through to becoming a dietician.
And as a dietician, I realized that there are issues with people's dietary intake, and I became interested in learning how we could improve people's intake to help them eat better for their health. And it's very simple. It doesn't need to be complicated. And there's a lot of information in the media, more and more all the time, which leads people to becoming confused and not knowing what messages are, the right ones and what they should or shouldn't do.
And as a dietician, I see a lot of people who are just confused. So, my current research was surrounding a cooking program and teaching people or reteaching people basic skills. Then they had to put together a simple healthy meal from scratch in under 30 minutes. And it seems really worthwhile to try to study this, to find out, um, whether it improved people's cooking confidence and increased their ability to do what we were hoping they could and put those meals together in under 30 seconds and also, uh, 30 minutes.
Sorry. And also, we then wanted to look a bit further at other markers such as their mental health and see whether it affected people's mental health as well.
Shireen: Lovely. Thank you for sharing that. And can you talk a bit more about how you conceive of the need for this kind of research?
Joanna: So, I suppose I touched on this already. The particular research that we were talking about was centered around Jamie's Ministry of Food Cooking Program.
And this had already run a couple of times over in the Eastern states. It had been evaluated, but the evaluation stair just looked at frequency of fruit and vegetable intake and the cooking confidence. And we, when we ran the program over here in Western Australia, I wanted to look a little bit more in depth at how the study affected.
People's not just their cooking confidence and, uh, changing in eating behaviors, but also to look at other biomarkers of health and disease such as their blood biomarkers store biomarkers, their gut microbiome, and also, they had further questionnaires, which looked at their mental health and a sense of wellbeing in conjunction with the cooking program.
Shireen: Can you speak to some of the other organizations that you've partnered with? How did you coordinate with these other organizations involved in the project?
Joanna: Jamie's Ministry of Food in Australia partnered with The Good Foundation, and it was this partnership along with Edith Cowan University where I work, which conceived the study itself and set it all up.
And then in running the program itself and organizing the participants for this study involved a lot of liaising with the good foundation and their involvement very heavily. We couldn't have done it without them being onboard. And the genius industry of food ethos is definitely to try and help in any which way.
So, they're really excited about that, and we wanted to do further research on their program. Um, it involved being in communication with The Good Foundation throughout, because the program ran for three years in Western Australia, and it toured around. So, we didn't just do the classes in one place.
It toured around the Southwest as well. We took the study down to some of the more rural cities in the Southwest of Western Australia and all of this involved, uh, The Good Foundation and Jamie's Ministry of Food to be behind us to support us for this.
Shireen: Your results from this project saw that the participants report a significant improvement in their mental health, confidence in cooking and just general wellbeing that were fairly long term.
Uh, were these the expected results, and then were there any surprises in the results?
Joanna: Well, the study had been evaluated over ratio already. We had already seen that, um, your cooking program did increase participants' cooking confidence. So, we were really hoping that we would see the same thing with it in Western Australia.
And then when we were looking at the other areas of our interest in particular mental health and wellbeing in general health, we were really pleased to find that the cooking confidence improved as well as their mental health and their sense of wellbeing. So, they were what we hoped for. And we found that.
And then we did find that the surprising outcomes from the study were the gender differences. Usually with most cooking programs, you're going to get a bit of a gender bias at the beginning. More females tend to take up the program than males. And then in most studies that you'll do in public health, you'll find that women tend to have more time available.
So, there's usually a 75, 25 kinds of ratio between males and females. But at the beginning of the program, there was a big difference between the males and females in their cooking confidence, where the females were more confident at the start of the program. And then by the end of the program, the males and females were both equally confident.
And so, this was a really good finding because it showed us. The program was improving, male's cooking confidence. And this is something that we're really trying to encourage because males are getting back in the kitchen. Now there's more with women back in the workforce. There are more men cooking. And so, if we can increase male cooking confidence. That's a really good thing in conjunction with that, men tend to have slightly poorer diets than women. So, uh, again, if we can help address that by teaching them the importance and the ease of being able to cook healthy, and this is really, really a great thing.
Shireen: I want to double click on the mental health piece of it.
How much of these mental health benefits can be attributed to the improved self-confidence of learning to cook healthy meals and how much may be solely for the benefits of improving one’s diet?
Joanna: Um, it's a very good question. And unfortunately, our study couldn't tell us how to answer that directly. We don't have any emphatic results there, however, yes, it really does need to be considered for being involved in a cooking program is a fun experience and everyone, well, most people enjoy cooking.
And so therefore that in itself, just doing the cooking and being part of a program could help to improve people's mental health. The fact that it continued post-program for six months, we followed the participants up to six months and their mental health and there, their sense of wellbeing hadn’t deteriorated in that time suggests that that ability that they had gained their confidence in cooking was helping them feel better.
And then, although we didn't see it in our study, there weren't dramatic changes in people's dietary intake. This is where further research needs to be looked at. If you can really improve people. Daily habits of eating, then certainly you should see benefits in their mental health. We have found that with another study that we did at ACU, where we looked at the long-term benefits of fruit and vegetables intake and found that those with higher intakes over the longer term had better mental health outcomes at the end.
So definitely if we can eat more fruit and veg, we're going to look after our mental health.
Shireen: What do you attribute that stickiness to, why do you think the results lasted so far? So many months in, um, what was it about the program or the way it was delivered that may resonate with the program participants?
Joanna: That's a good question. I'm not sure if I can correctly answer it. It would really be my personal opinion on that because we didn't interview the participants to find out why. They had the same habits later on, which is a good point. It should perhaps be a future study. I would think that perhaps the Jamie's Ministry of Food aspect of the program, Jamie Oliver's frequent in the media always promoting healthy eating.
He does it in a friendly, fun way, and we created a Facebook group for people who had been part of the program so that they could stay connected, it's called The Foodie Network. And perhaps they, the participants being involved with this Facebook network help them maintain their interest and their enthusiasm for eating healthily long-term.
Shireen: I was just kind of curious, so totally put you on the spot there. Um, where do you hope research on this topic will go in the future and what are your plans for future research?
Joanna: My, my particular plans are slightly different, but on the topic of cooking and teaching, cooking confidence and helping people learn how to cook, I believe that where it should go next is to try and incorporate it into the education system.
If we can teach not only healthy eating and how to do it at school. But also teach why it's good for you. So, to be teaching our children the importance of looking at their gut health, how to eat healthy, and on the other side of the coin, unhealthy eating affects our bodies and our guts and our minds.
Those two together will hopefully build a better future generation of people who are not so reliant on convenience food and ready-made meals and can still fit healthy eating into their busy life schedules. So that's somewhere, which I think that it's definitely being worked on, certainly over here in Australia.
And I think globally. There are interventions to try and target the right people for teaching people to cook and incorporating that into our schools. And my particular area of research is moving more into the gut health side of things. And I have a couple of programs going on at ECU at the moment, looking at neurological conditions, diet, and neurological conditions in particular Parkinson's disease and stroke survivors.
And we also have, I'm involved in a study looking at gut health supplements for IBS. And there is another study looking at a gut health supplement with sleep and IBS. So, we're definitely looking at the gut and how it interrelates with our health and also, um, mental health and brain health in particular, with that neurological program that we've got.
Shireen: What are some findings that you hope to find through some of this research that you have planned?
Joanna: We're hoping to find some strong evidence supporting how changes, small changes to diet, maybe there's supplements, which are gut, particularly gut healthy supplements. And I'm not talking about nonfood items and talking about resistant starch, which is a part of foods in our diet already.
Um, how that can change, make changes to the gut, which then we see. Effect, either the brain or sleep or conditions, which are affecting people every day, IBS being one of them, which is closely related to anxiety and stress. So, what we're hoping to find, and we are beginning to get some really good results.
Is that just by increasing resistance starch in the diet, this can make a really big difference to the microbiome, which can then lead on to those benefits.
Shireen: Lovely. Thank you for sharing that. And I do admire that you're looking at some of this research that you have done to bring into schools because that's certainly a gap that we see, especially here in the United States around nutrition education starting down at an early age. We don't quite see that within, within school systems. I'm not sure about Australia there, but over here for sure. We, there's a severe lack of that kind of education being provided here in our school systems. It's interesting. Um, what that will look like and what the generational impact would be as a result of something like that.
Joanna: I think it's really important. It's a very easy way to prevent further decline in mental health and physiological health. If we provide our children with the power to do the right thing.
Shireen: Okay. So, with that, Dr. Rees, we are toward the end of the episode at this point, can you tell our listeners how they can connect with you and then just learn more about your work?
Joanna: Um, yes, of course I can be contacted or communicated with my Edith Cowan university link. We also have various resources available on the ECU website, in particular there's a page on gut health, which is a look book we have. And it's a guide to how to improve your diet for your gut health and in particular, how to include more resistant starch, which I mentioned earlier into your diet.
And if people are interested, this book just shows people who are, how, what a typical diet would look like. Which has plenty of resistant starch in it without having to actually purchase any supplements. And that's available through the Edith Cowan university website. And there are also links there to all the studies that we have going at the moment.
And if anyone's interested in participating, it doesn't matter that you’re on the other side of the world, I'm sure there are some studies where you don't need to be in physical form. And if you just want to learn more than you can touch base with the researchers and our team.
Shireen: Lovely. And the name of the book again?
Joanna: It's A Gut Feeling Mindful Menus for Your Microbiome.
Shireen: Okay. So that's the cookbook. And what we'll do is in the show notes for this episode, we will add a link to that cookbook. So that folks on here can go online and order that book. There is an eBook available, I believe Dr. Rees, can you speak to that?
Joanna: Uh, yes, there is. So, if you follow the links on the website, if you're interested, there is an eBook or there is a hard copy as well, which we do ship to the US both of which do have a small fee attached, but that money goes straight back into my research fund because my study in particular that I've been talking about today was done through volunteers alone.
So, there's no funding. So, something like a book fund is very useful because it helps us continue our research at ACU and try to improve the health of the nation.
Shireen: Lovely. And it is a nominal fee for the book. So strongly encourage your listeners here to go check it out again. It is called Gut-Feeling Mindful Menus for the Microbiome.
So, with that, Dr. Rees, thank you so much again for your time.
Joanna: It's been wonderful being part of your podcast and thank you very much for inviting me.
Shireen: Absolutely. And to our listeners, after this episode, head over to our Facebook, Instagram and answer this quick question. Have you ever taken a cooking class?
That's right. Have you ever taken a cooking class? And what was your experience like? Tell us what you learned, what you didn't learn, what you would hope to learn, let us know on our Facebook or Instagram, and we will see you there after the episode.
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