The coronavirus pandemic has changed a lot about modern life: how we work, socialize, and even how we eat. Dining out is a distant memory. But nutritionally, people weren’t exactly thriving before the pandemic. Now that we are eating the majority of the meals at home, might our diets actually improve?
People are eating almost every meal at home, which is a big change. By necessity, people are cooking more; web traffic to cooking and recipe websites is surging. It’s possible that a shift toward home cooking, if it persists, could eventually lead to reductions in chronic diet-related illnesses, like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension and obesity. Eating a healthy diet is related to a longer life, and one of the biggest predictors of eating a healthy diet is eating at home. Restaurant foods tend to be quite unhealthy. 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 calories, sodium, saturated fat and sugar. Cooking puts you in control of the ingredients that end up in your meal.
However, experts emphasize that on a population level, any long-term improvements caused by better cooking are likely to be small compared to the bad health effects of this crisis. Besides the devastating toll of the coronavirus itself, stay-at-home orders limit physical activity, social isolation probably increases solitude (which is linked to heart attacks and stroke) and job loss destroys people’s access to health care. Unhealthy foods are also still in large circulation. Sugar, flour, canned soups and alcohol, not exactly staples of a wholesome. The stress of the pandemic may also make people want to bake batches of cookies and fill up on processed snacks, since foods like these can comfort people in hard times. And all this emotional eating people are facing during covid-19 is linked to weight gain.
Just because a meal is cooked at home does not mean it’s healthy and not everyone has the same chance to prepare meals with healthy ingredients. Having a better diet only holds true for higher income households. More than millions of people have become unemployed since mid-March. For people who are able to work from home and have kept their jobs and have a secure 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 value. 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 affordable and shelf-stable but not very good for them. That also creates an opening for fast-food restaurants that are offering a lot of deals at present to fill that gap for people.
So much variability makes it difficult to predict how the coronavirus pandemic will change how people eat, or if these changes will be lasting. But one thing is becoming clear: The pandemic is likely affecting diets, and our diets are likely affecting who dies. Therefore, we recommend making an effort during the COVID-19 pandemic to choose a healthy lifestyle, eat diets high in fruits and vegetables, exercise during free time, try to maintain a healthy weight, and sleep more to weigh less.