Health News

A unique opportunity: How the pandemic has changed the way we eat

It was pre-9am when I caught my partner snacking on, and sharing with our three-year-old daughter, some COVID-baked chocolate brownie I made the previous day.

I feigned shock, but really, who was I to judge when by 9.30 I’d succumbed to a slice myself.

We’re cooking and eating together more, but we’re also eating more junk.Credit:iStock

Dessert for breakfast, breakfast for dinner, stress snacking, boredom binges and COVID baking: Topsy-turvy habits have formed in the topsy-turvy world we’re living in. And who can blame us?

This pandemic has upended many of the rhythms and routines in our lives, our eating patterns included. Research from around the world has suggested that the changes brought about by the pandemic have been both positive and negative.

On the one hand, more families are sharing meals together, which benefits everyone.

Not only is it related to reduced rates of obesity and enhanced emotional wellbeing (everyone slows down and is more likely to talk to one another as well as focus on their food and hunger signals), it adds some predictability and routine at a time that can be very fragmented, says Anne Fishel, an Associate Clinical Professor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School.

She adds: “Couples who attached more meaning and importance to family meals were more satisfied with their marital relationship. It’s unclear in which direction the causality goes. Is it that those in more satisfying marriages gravitate toward creating daily rituals? Or that enacting daily rituals leads to more robust relationships?”

Some research also suggests that because people are cooking at home more and eating out less, they are eating more fruits and vegetables. And people are getting creative with their food, making more elaborate meals and embracing #covidbaking.

Other changes, however, are a “significant public health worry”.

A review of the global research on the dietary habits of people in lockdown, published in March, found that many people were snacking more, eating more meals and consuming more comfort foods including sweets, fried food, snack foods, and processed foods.

Many people also reported weight gain and a reduction in physical exercise. Australian research echoes these findings.

A CSIRO survey of 3745 people, published in June 2020, found about one third of respondents felt their diet had been worse during the restrictions; almost 40 per cent said they felt like they had gained weight.

Lead author, Emily Brindal, says that having the odd treat can help get us through stressful times and shouldn’t have a big impact on our health or weight: “But when it becomes a habit – or something that we are doing regularly without much thought – it is likely to create issues.”

Separate research, a collaboration between the University of Sheffield and Flinders University published in May, found 49 per cent of respondents reported snacking more, particularly on high-energy density foods.

Across the different studies, increased snacking and consumption of comfort foods was associated with higher levels of stress and anxiety.

This is something junk food companies are taking advantage of by ‘COVID-washing’ their products: boosting the image of their brand by including messages of concern or support for people’s struggles during the pandemic.

It may be the result of COVID-washing or the hyper-palatability of processed foods, but Professor Felice Jacka is unsurprised we’re turning to brownies for breakfast or salty snacks now more than ever.

“The food industry spends an incredible amount of effort, time and money to create ‘foods’ that hit the reward systems in our brains most effectively,” explains Jacka, the director of Deakin University’s Food and Mood Centre. “This means that ultra-processed foods are particularly tempting when we’re feeling low or stressed and need a boost of pleasure – similar to alcohol and online shopping.”

The problem with using these strategies to soothe the stress of yet another lockdown is that they have the opposite effect in the long-term.

“[They] can exacerbate our anxiety and low mood,” Jacka says. “And the current evidence suggests we can do some damage to our gut microbiota with even small binges on these foods.”

Nicole Dynan, an accredited practising dietitian adds that the detrimental effect on our gut health can affect both our physical and mental health.

“Poor dietary habits can result in fatigue as well as an increase in inflammation within the body which has been linked with chronic health conditions, including depression,” Dynan says.

She explains that this is because our nervous system and our gut are connected by neural pathways and serotonin (the happy hormone) which helps to regulate both our mood and basic gut functioning.

Although comfort eating is an understandable “solution to this pandemic problem”, especially when we are languishing or feeling a bit ‘blah’, she says:

“Consuming a healthy, balanced diet that is high in fibre and supportive of a good mood is an easy way we can help look after ourselves while we experience such uncertain times.”

Easier said than done, right? Right.

“Given how [junk foods are] designed to be difficult to resist, my only strategy is to just not buy them and have them in the house,” Jacka says. “If they’re there – like nice bottles of wine – I find them very hard to walk past.”

Still, there will be days when we may well need a chocolate brownie for breakfast. After all, the point isn’t to come out of this pandemic the healthiest, most glittering versions of ourselves, but to come out alive and with our sanity intact, reminds Brindal.

“Be kind to yourself. Worldwide COVID-19 related stresses and lockdowns have negatively impacted people’s diets and waistlines but also their broader wellbeing.

“Try to get your mind right before you tackle the body. It is much easier to stay focused and driven when you are feeling more positive.”

The irony is that getting our body healthy also helps our mind stay healthy.

And given our routines have gone out the window, Dynan says there is a unique opportunity to recreate our habits, shifting towards a healthier routine that can be sustained post-pandemic:

“Getting back to basics with preparing and enjoying food may seem old-fashioned but is almost essential to set ourselves on a new path of health and sustainability in this new world. It will help us to reconnect as families and communities once all this craziness comes to an end.”

Five tips for better eating habits

Tip 1: Focus on nutritious foods: “Start the day as you intend to continue by eating nutritious foods first thing,” she suggests. Appealing as starting the day with a chocolate brownie may be, your blood sugar levels will spike and then fall, spurring you to seek out another quick pick-me-up to maintain your energy levels.

Tip 2: Prepare ahead of time: “This ultimately will help to curb your snacking as you’ve already pre-planned what you intend to eat.”

Tip 3: Adopt mindful eating habits: “Being mindful of the food you eat can help to slow you down, aid in better digestion and help you to feel satisfied with eating less.”

Tip 4: Try some new food inspiration: “Mixing up or resetting your food routine, can do wonders for your relationship with food, and motivation to cook.”

Tip 5: Eating before midday can help: “If you are fasting for 16-hours overnight, doing high-intensity exercise in the morning, and then binge-eating your way from lunch to dinner to compensate, then it may be time to rethink your approach.” Eating breakfast isn’t always a bad thing.

– Nicole Dynan, accredited practising dietitian

Make the most of your health, relationships, fitness and nutrition with our Live Well newsletter. Get it in your inbox every Monday.

Most Viewed in Lifestyle

From our partners

Source: Read Full Article