Thousands of Americans are forced to spend more time in their kitchens while providing home-cooked meals for their families. This is happening for the first time for many. Could the pandemic be changing the eating habits and behaviors of Americans nationwide?
This article was originally published in Time on April 28, 2020.
Our Diets Are Changing Because of the Coronavirus Pandemic. Is It for the Better?
The coronavirus pandemic has changed a lot about modern American life: how we work, socialize, and even how we eat. Dining out is a distant memory.
But nutritionally, people weren’t exactly thriving in pre-pandemic America. “Before COVID-19 came along, it was increasingly clear that the diet quality and nutritional status of Americans was terrible,” says Dr. Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. More than 40% of U.S. adults are obese. After years of declines, heart disease death rates are on the rise again. So are rates of obesity-linked cancers among younger people. Poor diets are the number-one cause of poor health in the U.S., according to a 2018 study published in JAMA.
Now that Americans are eating most meals at home, might our diets actually improve?
Researchers are just beginning to study how people are feeding themselves during the pandemic, and while there is no robust data yet, the shifts are obvious. “People are eating almost every meal at home, which is a huge change,” says Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, a cardiologist and dean of the Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science.
It’s possible that a shift toward home cooking, if it persists, could eventually lead to reductions in chronic diet-related illnesses, like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hypertension and obesity. Eating a healthy diet is linked to a longer life, and “one of the biggest predictors of eating a healthy diet is eating at home,” Mozaffarian says. His new research published in April in the Journal of Nutrition found that Americans get about 21% of their calories from restaurants—and most of that food is of poor nutritional quality. “Restaurant foods tend to be fairly unhealthy,” he says; there’s a lot of variation depending on the restaurant and what you order, but typical menu offerings at large chains, for example, are high in sodium, calories, saturated fat and sugar. Cooking puts you in control of the ingredients that end up in your meal.
Unhealthy foods are still in wide circulation. Flour, sugar, canned soups and alcohol—not exactly staples of a wholesome diet—have all surged in U.S. sales during the pandemic. Health officials are urging Americans to go grocery shopping as infrequently as possible, boosting the appeal of highly processed foods, which last longer than fresh but are loaded with sugar, fat and salt and linked to a higher risk of cancer. The stress of the pandemic may also make people want to bake batches of cookies and load up on processed snacks, since foods like these can comfort people in scary times.
Just because a meal is cooked at home does not mean it’s healthy—and not everyone has the same opportunity to prepare meals with healthy ingredients, says Julia Wolfson, an assistant professor of health management and policy at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.
More than 26 million people have filed for unemployment since mid-March, and there is now unmeetable demand at food banks and a spate of sign-ups for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, which aren’t always sufficient or easy to obtain even in the best of times. “For people who are able to work from home and have kept their jobs and have a stable source of income—and who are now not eating out as much as they were before and cooking at home more—we are going to see this relationship with better diet quality,” Wolfson predicts. But for others who have lost their jobs or who live in neighborhoods where produce isn’t well-stocked or grocery delivery isn’t offered, “they might be relying even more than usual on some of these more highly processed foods that are very shelf-stable and affordable, but not very good for you.”
With kids out of school and daycare, families can no longer depend on lunch or breakfast being covered for their children. And for shoppers on a budget, it’s not just annoying to substitute out-of-stock ingredients at the supermarket; it’s costly. For essential workers or people taking care of children, extra time for shopping and cooking may not exist.
So much variability makes it difficult to predict how the coronavirus pandemic will change how Americans eat, or if these changes will be permanent. But one thing is becoming clear: “The epidemic is likely affecting diets, and our diets are likely affecting who dies,” says Willett. He is now studying how people’s diets are linked to their outcomes if they get infected with the coronavirus. Research is finding that major risk factors for being hospitalized for COVID-19 include diet-related conditions, like obesity, hypertension and Type 2 diabetes. “If we had a metabolically healthy population, the risk of hospitalization from COVID could be dramatically lower,” Mozaffarian says.
“Poor metabolic health is devastating for resilience of the population,” he adds. “We need a healthier food system through better policy, not just the random chance disaster of restaurants being closed.”
Written by: Mandy Oaklander
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