The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has been ingrained in our daily lives for nearly a year now and seems to be here for a bit longer. In the midst of its impact on the lives of everyone and the health of many, the way we think and act around food and food safety continues to change.
According to the 2020 Food and Health Survey conducted by the International Food Information Council, as many as 85% of Americans made changes in how they prepare food as well as changes to the food they eat as a result of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. But are these changes positive or negative? Turns out, they’re a bit of both.
COVID-19 Changes Eating Habits in 2020
The survey, conducted online from April 8, to April 16, 2020, included a nationally-representative sample of 1,011 Americans between the ages of 18 and 80. According to the results, cooking more at home saw the most significant change (60%), but Americans are also snacking more (32%), washing produce more than they did before the pandemic (30%), and thinking more about food in general (27%). Consumers under the age of 35, women, and parents are the most likely to have made changes due to COVID, both in terms of less healthy and healthier choices.
Cooking at home: It makes sense that the biggest change is more Americans are cooking at home, especially considering that restaurants across the country are limited or shut down. However, consumers are torn between healthy and less healthy eating. According to the survey, 14% of Americans said they’re eating less healthy than they did before the pandemic, and approximately 22% said they’re eating healthier than usual. Overall, those who cook at home are typically healthier and consume fewer calories, less fat, less sugar, and fewer carbohydrates than those who eat out.
Another survey found that some Americans are making healthier choices, while others aren’t. Specifically, 30% of respondents are eating more protein now than before COVID, 42% are eating more veggies, and 43% are eating more fruits. On the other hand, 19% are eating less protein, 21% are eating fewer fruits, 24% are eating fewer veggies, and 47% are eating more sweets. These findings aren’t surprising; research has found that when levels of cortisol -- the body’s stress hormone -- increase, even non-stressed, healthy adults will eat more junk foods and snacks.
Snack attacks: According to the survey, approximately one-third of consumers are snacking more often now than they did before the pandemic. Fewer than 10% of respondents reported snacking less. However, snacking habits differ by age, with more than 40% of younger consumers under the age of 25 snacking more, compared to 26% of consumers over the age of 50. Parents are also snacking more to relieve coronavirus-induced stress, with 29% of adults without children under 18 snacking less, compared to 41% of adults with children. The type of snack also plays an important role as to whether these changes are positive since snacks can be healthy (like nuts and fruits) or they can be unhealthy (like donuts and Fritos).
Since early March, when Americans began to change what they were buying due to lockdowns and stay-at-home orders, national sales data shows that salty snacks have been the top food item. In fact, sales of savory and salty snacks have increased more than 15% in the last eight weeks, online snack sales have risen 44% since March 1, and cookie sales have soared 147% during the pandemic.
Health improvements: Despite the fact that sales of snacks and cookies are booming, Americans are trying to be healthier, the survey found. For instance, 43% of respondents reported that they’re following a diet in 2020, compared to 38% in 2019 and 36% in 2018. The most common diet followed is intermittent fasting, kicking last year’s top competitor -- clean eating -- down to second place. However, the survey didn’t come out and say why Americans are dieting now nor why they’re placing more of an emphasis on their weight and overall health.
One strategy that is more popular now than in decades past that is helping consumers to make healthier choices is the use of fitness trackers. The survey found that 18%, or nearly 1 in 5 Americans, are using a mobile health monitoring app or device, and 66%, or two-thirds, of those using them say it’s caused them to make healthy changes that they wouldn’t have made otherwise.
Consumers Report Concerns Over Food Safety and Preparation
Worrying about the coronavirus has also led to significant changes in how Americans view food safety. While Americans’ confidence in the country’s food supply remains virtually unchanged (68% in 2019 and 67% in 2020), food preparation and handling related to the risk of contracting COVID are now at the top of the list of food safety concerns. Approximately 24% of Americans reported COVID as the top food safety issue, while the top four concerns from 2019 -- pesticides/pesticide residues, carcinogens in food, chemicals in food, and foodborne illness -- declined.
Where consumers eat and purchase their food also influence how they feel about food safety and COVID. According to the survey, 49% of Americans are somewhat concerned about food preparation outside of their homes such as delivery or takeout. Similarly, 46% of consumers are concerned when they eat in restaurants or establishments outside of their homes. Trailing behind are individuals who worry about food safety when grocery shopping online (42%), those who shop in-store for groceries (36%), and those who prepare meals at home (30%).
2020 Diet Myths: Debunked
Amid the ongoing pandemic and the change in eating habits, 2020 was also full of diet myths and poor nutrition advice. As people tried to find the best diet to reduce their risk of contracting the coronavirus, nutrition advice took on a new urgency. In 2020, research has begun to question the legitimacy of claims about celebrity diets, fat-loss teas, and immune-boosting superfoods, while new research has also shed a new light on previous “hot topics” like vegan diets, intermittent fasting, and whether coffee is good for you.
Myth: You can lower your risk of contracting COVID-19 or prevent it completely by changing your diet.
Truth: Not even a truck full of oranges will stop you from getting sick if you are exposed to the coronavirus or another contagious illness. While it’s no surprise that diet fads have focused on ways we can boost our disease defenses, cutting out sugar and processed food won’t boost your immune system. Sure, these foods can cause health issues over time, but eating a slice of pizza is not going to increase your risk of contracting COVID-19. The bottom line is that there are no super-diets or superfoods that will prevent (or cure!) a contagious disease. Instead, your best shot at staying healthy is to eat a balanced, nutritious diet which will, in the long run, reduce your risk of developing a chronic disease.
Myth: Intermittent fasting is the best way to shed unwanted pounds.
Truth: Studies have suggested that intermittent fasting (IF), or only eating within a certain window of time, offers many benefits for weight loss, metabolism, and longevity. Researchers theorize that IF provides some type of health boost, perhaps by allowing your digestive system to take a break. However, the truth is that fasting doesn’t seem to make a difference and that possibly the health benefits are a result of the fewer calories one eats throughout the day. Again, there’s no one magic diet solution for health -- as much as we want to believe there is.
Myth: You should avoid coffee to lose weight and get healthy.
Truth: Many fad diets prohibit coffee, but emerging evidence shows that your morning cup of coffee is not as bad as it seems. In fact, coffee has recently been linked to health benefits like better cognitive and mental health, stronger bones, and a lower risk of chronic illnesses like cardiovascular disease and a few types of cancer. While we don’t know what exactly is in coffee that provides these benefits (as it’s made up of more than 1,000 different compounds) and consuming it in excess can certainly be detrimental, it is rich in antioxidants and polyphenols -- plant-based micronutrients known for increasing friendly bacteria in the gut and lowering inflammation levels.
It goes without saying that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused Americans to make major changes in their lives, including how they eat and diet. So, we’re faced with the question of: Will a few -- or all -- of our healthy behaviors and attitudes take the place of the unhealthy ones and stick around in the long run? We can only wait and see what happens when this pandemic is over. And hopefully your body and choices haven’t been terribly affected by the “Quarantine 15” pound weight problem too!
Be Healthy. Stay safe. Welcome 2021!
References & Additional Resources:
2020 Food and Health Survey - explores new topics, such as how food and health behaviors have changed in the past decade (2010-2020) and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our eating habits.
SportPort Healthy Recipes & Meal Swaps – offering comfort food and holiday menu recipe standards as well as alternatives (great for vegans or vegetarians).
SportPort blog: Add These To Your Grocery List: Some Foods to Help Boost Your Immune System – find 10 foods that may help to supercharge your body and also boost your immune system and try to avoid any sickness that might come your way.
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