Covid-19 lockdowns took toll on our diets

Most people consumed more unhealthy snacks and drinks during New Zealand lockdowns, according to a study led by researchers from the University of Auckland.

Dr Sarah Gerritsen

The Covid Kai Survey of 3,028 people ran from April 24 to May 13 when New Zealand was at alert levels three and four. Results of the online survey have just been published in the Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand.

Most people increased consumption of foods and drinks classified as unhealthy, such as sweet and salty snacks, white bread and pasta, processed meat and sugary drinks.

The results suggest the government should put more emphasis on nutrition during any future lockdowns, according to the authors, led by Dr Sarah Gerritsen, of the School of Population Health in the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences.

Two-out-of-three people increased their score on an unhealthy diet measure, with 40% eating more sweet snacks and 33% eating more salty snacks. One-third of respondents increased alcohol intake and 20% drank more sugary drinks.

Research from around the world shows time at home, boredom, and heightened stress lead to more snacking. 

Dr Gerritsen said: “With the restaurants, fast-food chains and take-away outlets closed, we wondered if more home-cooked meals would result in healthier eating over the lockdown. But independent grocers, and fruit and vegetable stores were also closed which may have limited options for buying healthy food,” she said.

Supermarkets, dairies and petrol stations, which remained open during the lockdown, “are characterised by heavy marketing of ultraprocessed foods which can have excessive energy and are high in added sugar and salt,” said Dr Gerritsen.

New Zealanders are not the only ones who have struggled to eat healthily during the pandemic. Research from around the world shows time at home, boredom, and heightened stress lead to more snacking, partly because food is constantly available at home.

Health messages from the government during lockdown focused on infection control, physical exercise, mental health, accessing health care, and family violence. Another researcher in the Covid Kai Survey team, Dr Lisa Te Morenga, said: “Public health advice could include the importance of nutrition for immunity, how to prepare healthy home-cooked meals, and tips to avoid eating in response to stress.”

During future lockdowns, the government could allow independent grocers to stay open; restrict the marketing and promotion of unhealthy food, alcohol, and sugary drinks; and subsidise healthy foods like fruits and vegetables, especially for families on low-incomes, the authors say.

Researchers from the University of Auckland (School of Population Health, School of Nursing, and Discipline of Nutrition and Dietetics), Victoria University of Wellington (School of Health) and Otago University (Department of Human Nutrition) conducted the study.

The survey was part of an international study across 38 countries led by researchers at the University of Antwerp in Belgium.

Talking about the methodology of the New Zealand study, Dr Gerritsen said: “A survey that is representative of the population was not able to be conducted during the lockdown. The online survey was biased toward those who are more likely to be on social media, with high literacy, and interested in food issues.”

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