COVID-19 and our diets: what do we know so far?

06 January 2021

The European Institute of Innovation & Technology (EIT) recently released a report revealing the impact of COVID-19 on people’s food behaviours across 10 European countries (UK, Sweden, Germany, Spain, Poland, Greece, France, Italy, Finland, Romania). Similarly, at around the 7 week mark of our national lockdown, we asked people in Scotland how they felt their diets and lifestyle had changed since the COVID-19 outbreak. Both reports evaluated changes in people’s food habits over lockdown and using the EIT report, we can better understand where the UK and particularly, Scottish diets stand in relation to other European countries. It has become clear that the effects of this lockdown have been both positive and negative, with some groups noticing a bigger change than others.

 

Changes in habits during the lockdown

For those who followed the banana bread and sourdough baking chronicles on social media, it will come as no surprise that EIT reported that 27% of people in those European countries consumed more flour during the pandemic. This may also be attributed to people cooking more in general. In fact, there were increases noted in almost every food group, from fruit and vegetables to confectionery. UK was noted to be amongst the highest for increases in confectionery, with 34% of people increasing their consumption compared to the 26% European average. Interestingly, according to the EIT report, the largest increase in food consumption was observed for fruit and vegetables, followed by crisps and snacks; however, this was not consistent across countries, with the UK reporting their largest increase in consumption of cereals, convenience foods, confectionery and alcohol. In fact, whilst most countries reported a general decline in alcohol consumption, the UK, Finland and Sweden reported the opposite.

Consistent with our findings, the UK population, however, was noted to be cooking more than average and attributed the rise in confectionery consumption to a rise in snacking between meals. Based on our polling results, we concluded very similar findings in our survey conducted in Scotland alone, where 47% of people reported consuming more confectionery, with the highest increase noted among 16-24 year olds. Interestingly, whilst people reported cooking from scratch more often, and 29% reported consuming more fruit and vegetables, almost half of the group also reported an increase in consumption of cakes and biscuits, with 54% crediting this to boredom.

 

Changes in food consumption habits since the lockdown. Some unfavourable changes observed with majority of people in Scotland (54%) are eating more out of boredom. 49% reported eating more cakes and biscuits and more than a third of the respondents (34%) noted drinking more alcohol.

 

Notably, the people who reported an increase in their consumption of cakes and biscuits also reported being worried about their diet and body weight. This shows that knowledge alone may not always translate into action and instead in this case, contributed to their worries. As expected, our shopping habits also saw a shift during the lockdown. EIT reported an increase of online and bulk grocery shopping amongst 45% of people, with more consumers (30%) buying less expensive foods and unknown brands. More people (33%) also sought packaged foods due to hygiene concerns.

 Was everyone equally affected?

In both reports, the greatest behaviour changes, in both directions, were observed amongst young adults (16-35 year olds) who noted more dramatic changes to their lifestyle due to the pandemic. The 55+ age group reported the smallest changes in their behaviour during this period. The EIT report observed more pronounced changes in southern European countries which they attributed to likely variability in COVID-19 impact, as well as cultural and socio-economic differences. Unfortunately, no further analyses were reported that could discern how variability in socio-economic status affected food behaviours and overall diets. In our polling results, we noted greater changes in women, groups that sought help to afford food, and those with mental health conditions.

Will this change last?

EIT predicted that a number of changes would last post-pandemic. People reported plans to buy more local foods and reduce their use of unsustainable packaging. Making time for cooking and reducing food waste are also changes expected to continue in the future.

It is unclear whether shifts in working patterns during the post lockdown period will significantly impact these behaviour changes. The latest Fraser of Allander Scottish Business Monitor surveyed over 500 firms across Scotland and found that over 70% of businesses reported an increase in the number of employees working from home. This shift is expected to continue post-COVID where they predict more staff choosing to work from home or adopting a hybrid approach. However, as productivity remains to be evaluated, with only 10% of businesses reporting increased productivity with working from home, the shifts in working patterns post-COVID remain inconclusive.

Final thoughts

As the lockdown measures implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic generally resulted in the worsening of Scottish diets, the dramatic and swift impact of our environment on our diets has become clear. We have also seen that knowledge of healthy diets and nutrition doesn’t always result in action. Obesity has been found to be a risk factor in COVID-19 severity and outcomes, and with 65% and 28% of the Scottish adult population living with overweight and obesity respectively, there is an increased need to address the unhealthy food environment we currently live in. Any efforts made to improve the health and diets of the nation should also consider altering the food environment we currently live in, with increasing focus on groups most affected by this pandemic.

 

Find out more about COVID-19 and obesity in our blog and briefing.