Researchers find food behaviour in UK and Ireland altered ‘significantly’ during Covid-19 pandemic

An international survey led by Queen’s University Belfast has found “significant” changes to eating patterns during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Positive changes – such as an increase in home-cooking and cooking from scratch with fresh ingredients – were recorded. However, there were also negative trends – such as a reported increase in saturated fat intake.

A spike in bulk buying, which causes pressure on already-stressed food systems and can lead to shortages, triggering further panic-buying, was also observed during the study.

The survey was conducted in May-June 2020 when many countries were under some form of lockdown and used a sample of 2,360 adults across four regions: Northern Ireland; Republic of Ireland; Great Britain; US; and New Zealand.

The research was led by the Institute for Global Food Security (IGFS) at Queen’s in partnership with St. Angela’s College, Sligo (part of National University of Ireland, Galway).

The main findings have been published in Nutrients scientific journal and are believed to be the first published research across multiple continents on changing food practices due to Covid-19.

Changes

Overall, there were fewer changes in food behaviours in the US compared to the other three regions with the most marked differences between regions occurring between the USA and elsewhere.

For example, an increase in vegetable intake was seen across all regions except the US. There was also an upturn in home-cooking and home-baking frequency in all regions except the US.

Parents cooking (and baking) with children was also found to increase in all samples except the US.

Also, interestingly, parents who included their children in the preparation of family meals more frequently had a higher diet quality.

Conversely, though, an increase in saturated-fat intake was seen everywhere except the US. Overall, there was a decrease in the consumption of takeaway food and a rise in ‘organisational food practices’ (for example, planning ahead, shopping with a grocery list, etc).

When it came to ‘management food practices’ (preparing in advance, batch cooking, etc), however, there were no changes apparent for Ireland or New Zealand.

This may be connected to the fact that Irish and New Zealand restrictions were stricter than in other areas, so there may have been less of a need to prepare food in advance.

‘Comfort eating’

Lead researcher on the project, Dr. Fiona Lavelle from IGFS, said: “These findings not only provide crucial data for how our food behaviours and systems have adapted to the pandemic but they have important implications for public health as we continue to try to manage Covid-19 with ongoing lockdowns and restrictions.

“We wanted to find out what impact the pandemic and lockdowns were having on people’s health but we also wanted to try to find a way of measuring the effect on global food systems.

Thankfully, there is some good news in our findings and many people have benefited from cooking more at home and eating a better variety of fresh food. But there are some red flags in there too, such as the rise in saturated fat consumption, which may be down to ‘comfort eating’ during lockdown.

“It’s very important – especially during a pandemic, for obvious reasons – to maintain a nutritious, balanced diet.

“One of the survey results that interested me most was that cooking with children has increased, which is good for the children – but our study highlighted potential positive benefits for parents’ diet quality too when children were involved.

“With continued lockdowns and perhaps more people working from home in the future, I believe that including children in cooking activities should be a key public-health message going forward.”