[NEW STUDY] Did The Lockdown Encourage Healthier Habits?

Findings from the largest study of diet and lifestyle behaviour during COVID-19 revealed rather surprisingly that despite the sedentary lifestyle the lockdown seemed to promote, people used the opportunity to make positive changes to their diet and lifestyle.

The COVID 19 pandemic has indeed had many adverse effects on people including but not limited to loss of livelihood, mental health breakdown, sudden changes to the normal way of living, and even death.

However, this study has shown that the disruption caused by lockdown restrictions inspired many people, particularly those individuals who had less healthy behaviours before the pandemic, to make improvements to their health.

What prompted this study of diet and lifestyle behaviour during COVID-19?

A team of King’s researchers led by Dr Sarah Berry and Professor Tim Spector, together with data scientists from ZOE carried out this study to understand how the pandemic has affected health behaviours.

Over a million participants from the ZOE COVID Symptom Study in the UK and US were asked to complete a retrospective diet and lifestyle questionnaire before (Feb 2020) and during the pandemic (July/ Sept). Responses from this survey were analysed and revealed findings that were largely contrary to the public perception of the effects of the pandemic.

The study revealed that Individuals who recorded unhealthy pre-pandemic diet and health behaviours were more inclined to improve their overall diet quality and lose weight, whilst those most followed healthy pre-pandemic behaviours exhibited little change in health behaviours.

Fascinating right? That’s not all.

In what ways did the pandemic affect health behaviors according to the study?

By applying a novel health disruption index that included 5 metrics: Diet Quality Score, alcohol frequency, physical activity, snacking frequency (food consumed outside of main meals), and weekday sleep duration, the study showed that two-thirds of participants experienced lifestyle and diet disruption resulting from the pandemic and this varied according to sex, age, and level of deprivation.

Most enlightening of all was that disruption of health behaviours resulting from the pandemic was higher in younger females and people living in more deprived areas. Also, the magnitude of weight loss was greater than the weight gain in more disrupted individuals.

Individual changes to health behaviors also varied greatly in the following ways:

  • 15% of participants increased their weekday sleep while 9% decreased.
  • 32.5% of participants increased daily fruit and vegetable intake (from 3.5 to 5.6 portions per day) compared to 22.7% of participants who decreased (from 5.6 to 3.8 portions per day).
  • 22% of participants stated that they snacked less, while 18% increased their snacking.
  • 32% of participants lost an average of 4.0 kg, while 34% of participants gained an average of 3.5kg.
  • In frequency of alcohol consumption,18% of participants reported an increase compared to 11% who decreased. However, in the amount consumed at each event, there was a decrease (14% decreasing vs 11% increasing units) which suggests that total alcohol consumption may have been unchanged.
  • 27% of participants reported an increase in exercise, while 25% were less active.
  • 32% of participants lost an average of 4.0 kg, compared to 34% of participants who gained an average of 3.5kg.

The research also brings to light issues around food security. It showed that four times as many participants (5.8%) experienced decreased access to food, compared to participants (1.4%) who recorded that they had improved food access.

Key takeaways

It is evident the COVID-19 pandemic did not only have negative impacts on health behaviours. This large population-based study has revealed that the ensuing disruption due to the pandemic affected individuals very differently and it will be erroneous to adopt a general approach towards resolving issues that may have arisen due to this disruption. A more personalised approach is clearly needed while trying to influence positive health behaviour changes.

What does this mean for you as a nutrition professional?

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