Americans’ eating habits changed during the COVID-19 pandemic. As many as 85% of Americans report they made changes in the food they eat or how they prepare food because of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, according to the International Food Information Council’s (IFIC) 2020 Food and Health Survey. Studies show an overall increase in eating, snacking, and an increase in pre-packaged and comfort foods. Factors attributed to the pandemic, like stress, job loss, and food insecurity, also led to lower appetite or dietary intake, eating to cope, and an increase in eating disorders. But it’s not all bad news, there was also a rise in home food preparation and some were able to develop habits healthier than pre-pandemic life.
Disrupted Life Impacted Habits
“The disruptions to daily life associated with the ongoing pandemic may have significant negative consequences for the risk of eating disorders and symptoms,” said the lead author of one study Melissa Simone, a postdoctoral research fellow in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Minnesota Medical School, in Minneapolis.
Several studies show that people are engaging in fasting, restricted eating, skipping meals and overeating. Many are reporting that their diets have worsened during this pandemic. Not to mention the increase in sedentary lifestyle due to quarantine and limited access to gyms and regular physical activity routines.
Sources shared than 40% of consumers under the age of 35 reported snacking more than normal, compared to 26% of consumers over the age of 50. Younger consumers also were more likely to report eating both more and less healthy foods during the pandemic.
Across all age groups, behaviors that were reported include:
- Increase in snacking and alcohol consumption
- Reduction of physical activity
In one of the larger studies (97,000 people), individuals reported increased snacking, and on average, gained 7lbs. Those that increased their alcohol consumption gained 4.6lbs, on average.
While it may seem like the gradual reopening of the country and return to normalcy would cut bad habits short, readjusting relationships with food and alcohol isn’t always so easy. Sustained weight gain can result in ill health and increased risk of type 2 diabetes (by 27%), cardiovascular disease (by 12%) and cancer (by 21%).
Mental Health Impacts Eating Habits
Mental health trends across the globe varied through 2020, but studies within the U.S. showed an increased rate of depressive and anxiety symptoms, especially in younger adults and in those with pre-existing mental health issues. Mental health can greatly impact an individual’s eating habits and appetite, with symptoms varying from loss of appetite to excessive eating, or skewed habits. Studies generally found that the more severe and prolonged the lockdown (depending on state or country), the more likely an individual experienced a negative impact on their mental health and potentially their eating habits.
Some studies revealed that participants that were somewhat more financially secure, with a higher educational background, may have skewed the mental wellbeing results. A middle-aged demographic could also mean that the lockdown-associated slowdown of daily work-life routines was a welcome change. But of course, these results vary depending on factors like whether people had support systems, the severity of lockdown they experienced, job security, family stability, previous health levels, and more.
Some People Shifted Towards Beneficial Habits
Many studies have looked at factors like dietary patterns, dietary habits (both favorable and unfavorable), and activity levels. While some studies found that people turned to snacking, reaching for comfort foods, and a general increase in food consumption, other studies found the opposite.
Due to an initial lack of understanding about whether Covid-19 could be transmitted via prepared foods, consumer dining habits and shopper attitudes surrounding food changed. More than 40% said they were concerned about food safety when shopping for groceries online. Many people turned to at-home food prep as a precaution. Some used pre-packaged foods, began the habit of making food from scratch, or “semi- homemade”. To date, there has not been any evidence that the virus can be transmitted via food.
Home gardening became popular, with some home improvement stores experiencing shortages in supplies for raised gardening beds as people built “victory gardens,” named for gardens people maintained at home during World Wars I and II in an effort to increase production of fresh produce. Overall, there was an increase in demand for organic, plant-based, vegan and vegetarian foods.
People returned to home cooking and baking (a reported a 60% increase), and interest in food products such as flour, bread, fruits, milk and chicken increased significantly, indicating a long-term interest in cooking from scratch, baking and food storage. Some of YouTube’s most watched videos were about understanding the origin of the pandemic and how it could be fought using home cooked food remedies. Many search queries online focused on how to boost the immune system with the help of natural foods.
While results of studies vary, evidence shows that many people increased their understanding of how their body’s function and health could greatly impact their outcome if they did become infected with COVID-19. A persistent factor in negative outcomes in people infected with the virus was whether they had comorbidities like obesity, diabetes, and hypertension, among others. That people focused on how their habits could affect their longevity shows a more developed understanding of how underlying health conditions are greatly impacted by diet and physical activity. The hope is that the improved habits continue in the post COVID-19 era.
You can see the wide variety of changes that people experienced in their eating habits in the graph below.
What Can Be Done To Improve Eating Habits?
Returning to healthier habits, or committing to improve habits can be difficult. Take a few basic steps to help you get started.
- Keep healthier snacks on hand. If you avoid having unhealthy snacks at home, then you can’t eat them when the mood strikes. But, also seek out a healthy alternative. Craving chocolate? Try this recipe for zucchini brownies (better than it sounds, promise!). Or, have just a couple of pieces of your favorite, rather than a whole bar.
- Plan your meals. This helps you avoid ordering out or eating less healthy options just because they’re quick.
- Shop with a list. You’re less likely to make impulse purchases if you have something to hold you accountable. Not on the list? It doesn’t go in the cart, and it doesn’t come home.