Healthy Eating: The COVID Contradiction
By: Lynn Lafave
From education to eating, the pandemic has impacted every aspect of society. We asked Dr. Lynne Lafave, the co-author of Nutrition: A Functional Approach, how COVID-19 has affected our nutrition and how students can learn to build healthier eating habits during these stressful times.
How has COVID-19 affected nutrition habits?
A great deal of research world-wide has investigated predictors of healthy and unhealthy eating habits. Food prepared and eaten at home has been generally found to be healthier with higher nutrient density (more nutrients per calorie eaten) and lower energy overall. As a result, preparing and eating food at home is considered an eating habit associated with improved health and nutrient sufficiency.
In contrast, what we know is that adults, adolescents, and children are more likely to eat nutrient-poor energy-dense foods when the food is eaten away from home, school, or work. Examples of these nutrient-poor energy-dense foods include pastries, chips, soft drinks, and confections (candies and chocolate). The connecting characteristic is the ultra-processed nature of these foods and consuming larger proportions of these foods is a strong predictor of lower dietary quality and weight gain. Therefore, frequent eating food away from home is considered an unhealthy eating habit.
So, when various physical distancing restrictions were implemented to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and people spent more time at home, it seemed a reasonable hypothesis that this could lead to improved healthy eating. But nothing could have been further from the truth.
It seemed a reasonable hypothesis that spending more time at home during the pandemic could lead to improved healthy eating
Researchers quickly began to investigate the effects of COVID on eating habits and found some surprising results. In Italy, one of the first countries to institute lockdown measures, there was a significant increase in chips, sugary drinks, and red meat consumption among children and adolescents.
Evidence continues to trickle in demonstrating that poor dietary choices and increased drinking behaviours have increased world-wide as a result of the pandemic. In fact, Canada's Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, used her year-end 2020 address to caution Canadians about their higher alcohol consumption and encourage non-alcoholic options.
Why is the pandemic having a negative effect on eating habits?
To understand the impact of the pandemic on eating habits, we first have to understand factors that influence them.
Food choices are driven by a whole host of factors such as physiological aspects (hunger and appetite), cultural and social pressures, dietary components, familial and genetic factors, and cognitive-affective factors. Cognitive-affective factors such as perceived stress, anxiety, and depression may influence food choices which may help us to understand pandemic eating patterns.
Research has linked anxiety and stress to unhealthy lifestyle choices including the desire to eat and drink to feel better. This type of eating as a coping mechanism represents a stress-avoidance strategy of emotional eating to manage negative emotional experiences.
Popular culture addresses these ideas in media and comedy. Just think of a cartoon story about someone who has just broken up with their significant other, diving into a container of ice cream to drown their sorrows. Research evidence demonstrates that being in a state of sadness predisposes individuals to increased consumption of unhealthy foods.