So has diet changed as a result of COVID-19?

 

By Prof. Michael Winter

No-one is in any doubt that the Pandemic has for many people changed where they eat, especially during the lockdowns, with home cooking and takeaways flourishing at the expense of eating out. But the question of what people are eating is more complex. Headline data from Kantar published by the AHDB earlier this month compared Christmas food purchasing in the UK for 2020 with previous pre-pandemic Christmas sales.[1] Grocery sales were up by 11.7% on the previous year, compared to a mere 0.2% increase between 2018 and 2019. The largest year on year increase over the last decade was 6.1% between 2011 and 2012. Not surprisingly, Online was the big Christmas 2020 grocery winner and consumers shopped around less, continuing a trend seen throughout 2020.

What is interesting about these figures is that the closure of hospitality is likely to be less distorting of consumer trends at Christmas than at any other time of the year. Yes, of course, hospitality venues would normally boom in the run-up to Christmas and in the New Year and some, of course, do open for Christmas Day itself. Moreover prior to COVID there had been a sharp increase in eating out on Christmas day, but from a low base, estimated in The Caterer at just 3% of the population in 2017.[2]  So most people home-cater for Christmas day itself. Keep in mind that 11.7% overall sales increase figure as we turn to particular categories of growth between the festive seasons of 2019 and 2020:

 

 

[We are grateful to the AHDB for permission to reproduce the above graphics]

 

So dairy products, beef and pork significantly outstripped the overall trend. Perhaps somewhat counterintuitively, accompanying vegetables did not grow at the same rate with volume sales increases of 14% for carrots, 5.1% for parsnips and 7.2% for sprouts.[3]  So is the long term trend towards less meat being bucked by the pandemic? Well it’s too soon to say and data for one Christmas certainly do not make a trend; and data are still emerging on diet change and will continue to do so. This piece is not an attempt to provide any definitive answers but I turn now to two pieces of independent academic research recently covered for some further indicators around the ‘what’ question.

The first looks at whether individuals and families in the UK have changed their food choice motivations over lockdown and was based on 248 respondents to an online survey.[4] The authors, Sarah Snuggs and Sophie McGregor, caution that the results are preliminary and the sample was small. Respondents were asked to reflect on their food goals and motivations before lockdown and in the Summer 2020 looking at the relative importance of Health, Mood, Convenience, Sensory Appeal, Natural Content, Price, Weight, Control, Familiarity, and Ethical Concern:

Results indicated that the sample placed more importance on health, weight control and mood when choosing their food after lockdown than they had before, and less importance on familiarity. A number of sub-groups were identified who may be particularly vulnerable to food-related challenges in future lockdowns including younger adults, parents and carers of children, those self-isolating and individuals who do not live within close proximity to food shops.

Some of these findings need to be treated with caution. For example, as the authors point out, a concern with health may be caused by concern about weight gain rather than healthy eating per se. They also point to some fascinating differences between their sub-samples. Younger people changed more than older people with 18-26 year olds placing increasing emphasis on health, price, weight control and natural content and less on convenience and familiarity. The authors speculate that this this might be encouraging for improved health behaviours going forward. But on the other hand,

(T)hey might reflect the more negative point that young people are more likely to have become unemployed or furloughed than older individuals leaving them with more time to consider their food choices, but also more pressure to keep costs down.

In short, there is a lot we don’t know, and of course asking people about what motivates their food choices at best offers only a proxy for my ‘what’ question.  After all, when someone says I am eating more healthily we don’t know for sure what that means. As in any research, understanding the precise methods adopted in social science research is important. So when we come to our next paper, superficially there seems to be an immediate contrast with the Snuggs and McGregor work.  But the devil is in the detail of the aims and methods used (hence, of course, the need for multiple methods and sources for conclusive analysis of this topic). Buckland et al. offer interesting data on unhealthy eating during the pandemic.[5]

The researchers set out to increase understanding of the risk of overeating during lockdown period. Again they adopted an online survey which gave them 588 responses to analyse, 485 were from the UK and 219 from non-UK countries. The study aims were to:

  1. Assess reported changes to food intake (changes to overall amount eaten and for High Energy Dense sweet and savoury foods) during the first COVID-19 lockdown.
  2. Identify the eating behaviour traits that increase susceptibility to increased intake of HED (High Energy Dense) sweet and savoury foods.
  3. Explore whether adopting coping strategies linked with reduced distress (active coping, acceptance and positive reframing) would moderate the relationship between eating behaviour traits and changes to food intake.

48% of the sample reported increased food intake. But it is a complex story. For example, while respondents were more likely to report increased snack intake than increased meal intake, there was an increase in fruit and vegetable intake. Mean changes to HED sweet and savoury foods were low but there was a high degree of variation and 22-26% did report increasing consumption of HED sweet and savoury foods.

This is a complex paper so do look at the full version if you want to get to grips with the detail.  The authors are psychologists with a particular interest in craving and its control. Let me finish with their own conclusions to the paper:

In conclusion, within a sample of mostly white, educated, not low income, and not home schooling participants, this study identified the role of craving control as an important predictor of increased HED sweet and savoury food intake in response to the UK COVID-19 lockdown. The study also showed that the increased HED sweet food intake reported in people scoring low in craving control was reduced in people who adopted an acceptance coping strategies. Strategies that promote improved craving control and acceptance coping strategies should be further investigated as targets for future interventions to promote controlled food intake during viral lockdowns.   

 

[1] https://ahdb.org.uk/news/consumer-insight-beef-and-dairy-winners-this-christmas

[2] https://www.thecaterer.com/news/restaurant/number-of-people-eating-out-on-christmas-day-set-to-treble

[3] https://ahdb.org.uk/news/consumer-insight-produce-and-potatoes-benefit-from-smaller-christmas-celebrations

[4] Snuggs, S and McGregor, S. (2021) Food & meal decision making in lockdown: How and who has Covid-19 affected? Food Quality and Preference, 89, 104145

[5] Buckland, N.J. Swinnerton, L.F. Kwok Ng, Price, M. Wilkinson, L.L. Myers, A. Dalton, M. (2021) Susceptibility to increased high energy dense sweet and savoury food intake in response to the COVID-19 lockdown: the role of craving control and acceptance coping strategies, Appetite, 158, 105017.

 

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