You Are What You Eat: The Pandemic Impact on Eating Habits
It was just another Wednesday afternoon in February 2020, when Phil my fresh produce supplier popped into the kitchen for our regular catch-up. During our conversation, a topic came out about news of new infections which were spreading and creating havoc in some parts of the world. He said there could be disruptions to our daily life, such as problems with the supply of fresh produce and other goods. I naively said that it would all be over in six months or so.
But here we are, more than two years since the pandemic started, and life has not returned to the “normal” that we knew. We all experienced life-changing disruptions that the pandemic brought. We changed the way we shop, the way we study, the way we work, the way we travel, the way we greet each other and the way we eat.
In 1826 Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote: “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.” This inspired Youthplomacy to survey how the pandemic has changed our eating habits, and how it reflects our altered lives.
The Pandemic and Eating Habits online survey was conducted from 18th to 24th January 2022, among 142 respondents aged 15+ years old living in urban areas. An online Focus Group Discussion (FGD) was then carried out on 2nd February 2020 with some respondents that participated in the survey, to get a better insight into the results.
Almost half of the survey respondents claimed that they consumed more snacks during the first year of the pandemic.
This finding is quite consistent across different age groups. Where 51% of Gen Z respondents aged 15 – 24 years old claimed they consumed more snacks than pre-pandemic, and 42% of Millennial aged 25+ years old
Out of the respondents that reported an increase in snacking during the first year of the pandemic, only around 20% claimed that they had fewer snacks during the second year of the pandemic, but worryingly almost 80% claimed they ate either the same amount of snack or even more snacks in the following year. Indicating that for some people, frequent snacking had been adopted as a new habit.
Why We Grazed
During the FGD, we talked about some factors that contributed to an increase in snack consumption during the pandemic, which are:
· Boredom/ lack of activity
With schools, offices and many public places frequently shut down for an extended period during the pandemic, many students and workers suddenly found a lot of extra time on their hands, with no plan or devices to spend them constructively. For some, this situation immediately gave way to boredom and subsequently prompted them into snacking just to pass the time and fight the days’ dullness. Other people tried to fill their days binge-watching shows on streaming platforms while unmindfully grazing through the shows, consequently increasing snacking consumption.
· Social media influence
Have you heard of the Dalgona coffee trend? Clap once if you’ve seen it on TikTok or other platforms, clap twice if you’ve tried making it yourselves……. I can almost hear the continuous distant clapping from here. During the pandemic, viral food trends on social media are double-edged swords. On one hand, they provide a cure, a distraction from boredom, and replaced it with the excitement to experiment with novel things. On the other hand, they lead to inadvertent increased snacking, from trying out the experiments’ results. This is especially worse with addictive unhealthy food trends that lead to repeat consumption.
· High food availability and accessibility
One of the more positive impacts of the pandemic is the booming of online food services. Never before food are more available and accessible to consumers than they are now. Just with a few clicks on a smartphone, an almost unlimited selection of food and drinks, from a very diverse variety of cuisines and price ranges would appear almost instantly on our doorstep. Unfortunately, though, this facilitated an increase in snack consumption by making food very easily available and accessible almost at any time of the day, especially for people living in big cities.
· Absence of Social Deterrent
Working in offices, to some extent, curb snacking habits out of regard to other co-workers. In a Work-From-Home setting, any social deterrent to snacking while working are removed, hence encouraging some people to snack more freely and more frequently. The same is true for students with online learning arrangements in replacement of classroom learning.
What We Grazed
Food choices are personal and therefore as diverse as our personalities. This is reflected in the varied types of snacks consumed during the pandemic. From packets of Korean Honey Butter Potato Chips that were emptied while watching Squid Game to packets of Oreo and glasses of boba tea for the sweet tooths, to a McDonald’s burger to satisfy a nighttime craving, to the frozen dim sum which is practical and accessible.
On the surface, it appears that we are in total control to choose what we want to consume, however, there’s a very strong undercurrent that influences our choices. Such as what’s viral on social media, what we watch on TV, what’s trending (some people just have to try trending foods out of FOMO) and what’s predominantly available on our smartphone food apps.
The Rise of Home-based Meals
Other interesting findings from the survey are the indication of an increase in takeaway/ online food consumption and home-cooked food consumption at the same time. This doesn’t mean that many people are eating a lot more, although this was the case with some of the respondents. Instead, this suggested an increase in home-based eating that replaced dining out occasions.
Before the pandemic, many students and office workers used to consume their breakfasts, lunches, and even dinners in eateries nearby their schools/ campuses/ offices. But during lockdowns and strict restrictions, most meals are consumed in the safety of their houses/ apartments.
The food consumed at home was a combination of takeaway/ online food and home-cooked meals. Another trend that facilitated an increase in home cooking during the pandemic is the rise of frozen food businesses. These businesses offer an array of frozen food items at different stages of preparation; therefore, they help make home cooking easier and more practical. The assortment of frozen food on offers also enable more variety to home-cooked meals, which helps prevent a boring repetitive menu during a long lockdown restriction.
Food has the power to lift our spirits and bring comfort. In a time of a pandemic when almost the whole planet experiences a collective drop in spirit and an increase in anxiety, it’s not surprising that we almost collectively turned to food to bring comfort. Some can find temporary comforts in bags of chips, while others in glasses of wine or G&T.
Finding comforts in food or drink could be a good coping mechanism for short term problems. However, in a pandemic that has lasted for more than 2 years, this can dangerously turn into bad eating habits.
The Pandemic and Eating Habits survey indicated that while several respondents managed to reverse some of the unhealthy habits that were formed during the first year of the pandemic, some worryingly carried the habits onto the second year of the pandemic.
Even before the pandemic started, global data indicates that overweight and obesity are on the rise and pose serious public health challenges (World Health Organizations, 2021). With an indication that unhealthy eating habits, such as frequent snacking, are formed during the pandemic, it won’t come as a surprise if the risk of overweight and obese society becomes higher during the pandemic.
Is there anything we can do to avoid this ominous trajectory?
1. A Social Act
We are social creatures. So apart from paying more attention to our diets, perhaps we can check in on what our close friends/ relatives have been having during the pandemic. A simple “Have you been eating healthy?” drop into the small chats before our Zoom meeting officially starts might trigger some of our friends to evaluate their eating habits. The same for teachers to ask their students, during online learning sessions.
In a tight and caring society such as Indonesia, there’s a beautiful tradition where people send food to saying “I think of you”. This is usually more prominent during big holidays such as Idul Fitri, Christmas, Chinese New Year, etc. These heartwarming gestures are more frequently practised these days when people send food to cheer up their friends or relatives who have to self-isolate having tested positive for Covid-19. However, looking at the indication that many people are already exceeding their snack quota, maybe we can try sending healthier options to show that we care.
2. Influencing the Snack Landscape.
We are what we eat. But as one of the FGD respondents wisely said: “We eat what’s available”. If we’re trying to curb overgrazing, perhaps one of the most effective ways is to stop buying and stocking those tempting morsels in the first place. However, if we do need to snack now and then, maybe we need to start planning what’s inside our snack box wisely, instead of relying on the moment’s whim.
If we look at the bestseller list in our food delivery apps, chances are we will find more options for sugary, highly processed, and calorific food items. Businesses provide what consumers want. When enough consumers ask for healthier food options, businesses will happily comply. So, collectively we do play part in shaping the food landscape around us.
Digital transformation grows as if on steroids during the pandemic. One of the digital influences on our food landscape is in the form of food influencers and trendsetters. The more these influencers can be engaged and motivated to create healthier food trends, the healthier our food landscape will be.
3. Flattening the (Belly) Curve
Flattening the curve is an effective mantra in controlling the spread of Covid-19. This should also be the mantra to help prevent overeating, overgrazing and weight gain during the pandemic. Now that we are well into the 3rd year of the pandemic, it’s time to find better coping mechanisms than opening a pack of Pringles