Living and eating during the pandemic

Living and eating during the pandemic

If you noticed a change to your diet during the COVID-19 lockdowns, you aren’t alone.

The lockdowns changed many aspects of our way of life, including our dietary practices. Several studies have reported changes in eating and drinking patterns in New Zealand and abroad –– both for the good and not so good. In general, the many ways dietary habits changed are complex, much of it relating to factors such as individual lifestyles, traditional foods, and economic factors.

The pandemic has affected our dietary patterns both directly and indirectly

While vaccines and ways to treat those who became infected were being rolled out, lockdowns and social distancing measures have been two of our main lines of defence against the spread of COVID-19. Although social distancing restrictions have varied both between countries and within countries, depending on the severity of the situation, lockdowns have imposed the most restrictive rules, resulting in temporary closures of everything but essential services. This has impacted on the global food supply chain, and has meant many people have experienced limited access to favoured foods through store closures and lack of supplies. Even a ban, for example, on hunting and fishing which happened during New Zealand’s level 4 lockdown, had an affect for some of the population. The increased stress and the sheer boredom of living in home confinement has added to these dietary changes.

COVID Kai Survey

In 2020, New Zealand researchers conducted the “COVID Kai Survey”, consisting of over 3000 residents nationwide, to see if our eating patterns had changed during the first nationwide lockdown. Having more time at home resulted in more baking and cooking, yet home-cooked food did not always translate into healthier eating, especially among those under 50 years or with children. Instead, the researchers detected a slight but general shift toward an unhealthier diet containing more junk food where it was available, sweet treats, alcohol, and sugary drinks.

Global perspective

A global review on the impact of the lockdowns on diet and lifestyle covered factors such as the changes to dietary patterns around snacking and meal numbers, whether the dietary changes were favourable or unfavourable, weight gain, and physical activity. The review included 23 full papers considered acceptable for consideration, spanning the US, Asia, Palestine, India, China, Italy, France, Spain, Poland, the UK, Australia, and Zimbabwe (Bennett et al., 2021). It’s important to note much of the research included in this review was self-reported and conducted on adult populations in developed nations.

Dietary Patterns

Nine of the 23 papers detected a meaningful change to when and how often people snacked during lockdowns. A general trend towards snacking at night following the last meal of the day is of concern due to the association between midnight snacking and the development of metabolic syndrome and obesity (Yoshida et al., 2018). The go-to snacks consisted of comfort foods containing “empty calories”, such as ice cream, cakes, and chocolate; obviously not a good trend considering the link between a sugar-fuelled diet and the development of type 2 diabetes.

Meal number

Six studies found people ate more meals per day during lockdown than usual, as well as a change to food habits. For example, people in India chose more ready-to-eat meals and meat, while a study in France found people’s diets were less diverse and contained less fresh produce. However, three studies found lockdown had the opposite effect on food consumption. For example, in Australia, one study reported that approximately 30% of participants became more weight-conscience during lockdown and restricted their food intake.

Favourable changes to diet habits

Spending more time at home resulted in favourable diet habits for some, with 11 studies reporting an increase in fruit and vegetables. However, who consumed more vegetables differed between countries and regions. For example, Spanish men said they ate more fruit and vegetables during lockdown than usual compared to females, whereas the opposite trend was observed in the US. There was a significant increase in home cooking worldwide, with pizza and bread being some of the most popular foods to cook. With food stores mostly closed, people consumed fewer fast foods, which was a food habit some have continued with post-lockdown. Other studies found a reduction in binge drinking because young people drink socially.

Unfavourable changes to diet habits

Nine studies found an overall downward trend in the quantity of quality food bought and consumed during lockdown. Temporary closures of food stores and restaurants restricted access to fresh produce, such as vegetables and high-quality protein sources. This drove prices up on quality foods, highlighting the problem of unequal access to food due to socioeconomic disparity, which is in part to blame for unhealthy diets among those with worsening financial situations due to the pandemic.

In addition, stress and anxiety were reported to impact eating habits significantly and were associated with a less-balanced diet. Other studies said people turned to unhealthy comfort foods such as sweets, sugary drinks, and fried food during lockdown. Those already overweight or obese were the most at risk of falling into unhealthy diet traps, though an increase in unfavourable food consumption appeared to be a global phenomenon associated with adverse outcomes of home confinement such as boredom and decreased motivation.

Drinking alcohol was a coping mechanism for some people, with studies reporting higher alcohol consumption for between 10-15% of participants which was associated with higher anxiety and depression scores.

Physical activity, supplements, and weight gain

People in many countries said they exercised less during lockdown, which has been attributed to multiple factors such as increased screen time and less transit time on foot to work and school, as well as park facilities being closed. This downward trend in physical activity was observed across several groups, including normally physically active and educated groups, such as biomedical students, highlighting the widespread negative impact of lockdown on physical activity.

A study in China showed more than a third of participants increased their intake of supplements and herbs because they believed they would help protect them against COVID. Some of these supplements, such as vitamin C, may have helped boost the immune system. On the other hand, some participants said they consumed more wine and even vinegar, believing that they both hold properties that protect against COVID-19, despite government advice against it.

A number of studies also showed a weight increase among several of the participants during lockdown. Weight gain was a phenomenon in many countries yet showed slightly different trends within and between them. For example, a study in northern Italy alluded towards a significant weight increase of 1.5 kg. Another study in Italy reported 50% of people gained weight, which contrasts with findings from another Italy study where reported weight gain was relatively low. It was noted fewer people had a weight gain during the lockdown in the US. However, those who weighed in heavier did so by 2.2 – 4.5 kg. Weight gain was dependent on changes in diet and lifestyle habits, but the reasons for eating more related to individual-specifics and depended on socioeconomic factors, too. Boredom, stress, anxiety and depression, lower education levels, and disinterest in healthy food have been identified as some of the drivers behind the change in dietary patterns during lockdowns worldwide.

Where to from here?

Changes to diets during lockdowns have been both bad and good around the world. However, it appears from the studies to date that the downsides have outweighed the good in many of the studies. Educating the public of the long- and short-term health problems that may arise from a poor diet is now vital to encourage people to re-adopt a healthy lifestyle. In the scenario where people maintain bad dietary habits beyond the time they spent in lockdown, then health issues such as being overweight or obesity will be on the increase. This, in turn, could exacerbate our global health crisis. Time on this, however, will tell.

Cited works

Bennett, G., Young, E., Butler, I., & Coe, S. (2021). The impact of lockdown during the COVID-19 outbreak on dietary habits in various population groups: a scoping review. Frontiers In Nutrition8, 53. DOI: 10.3389/fnut.2021.626432

Sarah Gerritsen, Victoria Egli, Rajshri Roy, Jill Haszard, Charlotte De Backer, Lauranna Teunissen, Isabelle Cuykx, Paulien Decorte, Sara Pabian Pabian, Kathleen Van Royen & Lisa Te Morenga (Ngapuhi, Ngāti Whātua, Te Uri o Hua, Te Rarawa) (2021) Seven weeks of home-cooked meals: changes to New Zealanders’ grocery shopping, cooking and eating during the COVID-19 lockdown, Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand, 51:sup1, S4-S22, DOI: 10.1080/03036758.2020.1841010

Yoshida, J., Eguchi, E., Nagaoka, K. et al. (2018). Association of night eating habits with metabolic syndrome and its components: a longitudinal study. BMC Public Health 18,1366.