COVID teaches valuable lessons for encouraging sustainable, healthy eating behaviour

June 15, 2021

COVID-19 has made the eating behaviour of certain groups in the Dutch population either healthier and more sustainable or the exact opposite. This came to light in a study by Wageningen University & Research for the ministry of agriculture, nature and food quality. The study explored into the impact of the coronavirus on food selection behaviour in Dutch people during the pandemic. The majority of people exhibited similar patterns, but it was primarily the young, overweight, and vulnerable who changed how they ate.

The study examined 9 other Dutch studies and 23 European scientific articles on the coronavirus and eating behaviour and then combined the results of that research. The researchers also looked into what we could learn from the crisis in order to get sustainable, healthy eating habits to sink in.

Young people turned to a less healthy diet

Most people did not change their diets at all during the coronavirus pandemic, but there were certainly a few unusual trends that were revealed. For example, some groups are consuming more fruit and vegetables and in turn, fewer snacks and less alcohol. Also, more regional and seasonal products are being purchased and less food is being thrown away. At the same time, there are also groups who have turned to less healthy food and beverages: more snacks, more frequent take-out or delivery, and more alcohol. The shifts, both positive and negative, are striking: they are primarily displayed by the young, the overweight, and those with poor mental health. This is seen less in the elderly. All in all, about 22% of the Dutch have started to eat healthier as a result of the pandemic, while 12% have turned to a less healthy diet. “At first glance, these changes don't seem that shocking,” says Marleen Onwezen, researcher at Wageningen Economic Research, “but shifts in diet patterns on this scale never actually occur.”

More motivation, more possibilities

In Onwezen’s opinion, there are various explanations for the changes in eating patterns: “Some people have actually been motivated by the pandemic to start eating healthier. Factors such as health, improving the immune system, and wanting to lose weight play a role in this. Sustainability motivations also play a role, such as the preference for more Dutch products. And because people are at home more, they also have more opportunities to spend more time in the kitchen, for example. At the same time, vulnerable groups appear to be less resilient, and stress, fear and boredom can actually stimulate unhealthy eating. People who are better able to accept the new reality often have a healthier diet.”

Intrinsic motivation

Onwezen says that the changes in diet during COVID-19 offer opportunities: “Normally it is very difficult for people to change their dietary behaviour, but due to COVID-19 many people are more aware of food and attach more value to health and sustainability. Due to this intrinsic motivation, they make more conscious choices more often, which also last for the long term. Measures that keep people motivated help, such as role models that can be followed via social media. The communication about COVID has made some people aware of the importance of living a healthier lifestyle. For example, the news reported daily that obese people seemed more susceptible to the virus. This way of communicating can also be used without a pandemic to help people to understand the urgency of a healthy diet.”

Being at home more leads to new habits

Due to the pandemic, people are eating at home more often, which has led to new habits: cooking longer, eating more seasonal vegetables, and using leftovers from the freezer on Wednesday. “Through self-nudging, people can continue to subtly stimulate themselves to make the healthy choice the easy choice as well,” says Marleen Onwezen. “For example, you can store unhealthy snacks in the highest kitchen cupboards or in the cupboards that lock. Or you can park the car a little farther away, so that riding a bike to do your shopping is faster.”

In order to prevent vulnerable people from falling back into unhealthy food selection behaviour, Onwezen says that they need support: “It helps if they learn to deal with the crisis better: for example by also seeing the positive side or learning to accept the situation as it is.”

COVID-19 therefore offers a wide range of footholds for permanently promoting healthy and sustainable food selection behaviour and discouraging unhealthy and unsustainable choices. Onwezen: “While COVID may have caught us by surprise, there is no need to be taken aback by the temptations that will start coming our way after the pandemic. The impact of COVID on our food choices provides insights that allow us to accelerate the transition towards a healthy and sustainable diet.”