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One Year Later: How Has COVID-19 Affected Our Nutrition?

Man and son in a kitchen cooking and slicing fruits and vegetables.

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Key Takeaways

  • The way Americans eat has been affected at multiple levels during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Cooking from home and family meals have increased since the pandemic began, with health practitioners seeing positive changes coming from clients gaining more confidence in the kitchen.
  • Telehealth is becoming the new normal for interacting with healthcare providers, offering both convenience and safety during these uncertain times.

It's hard to believe it was nearly 365 days ago when the world as we knew it completely changed. The regular activities we engaged in day after day vanished, leading to a "new normal" that would include virtual schooling, telehealth appointments, and for many, vast changes to eating habits.

While it's safe to say nearly every American has experienced nutritional changes at some point in the past year as a result of COVID-19, after reviewing the research and speaking with multiple healthcare providers, five consistent themes appear to consistently emerge.

Let's take a closer look at these five concepts.

Foods With Immune Health Benefits Are a Hot Commodity

It's no surprise given the large amount of press around immune health that foods and supplements touted to promote immunity are all the rage. But, rest assured it's not just media hype. Research shows the benefits of immune-supporting nutrients like vitamin D, C, E, zinc, selenium, and omega-3 fatty acids.?????

Frontline responder and family medicine physician Dr. Angelica Neison says she's seen firsthand how many patients are curious to learn about foods that offer both anti-inflammatory and immunity benefits. She encourages her patients to look into a plant-forward diet for these health benefits, including foods such as berries, leafy greens, and legumes as well as probiotic-rich foods like yogurt, kimchee, and other fermented foods.

Lacy Ngo, MS, RDN, author of The Nourishing Meal Builder, agrees, noting an important point that needs to be remembered amongst the media headlines: You cannot "boost your immune system" overnight. Instead, focusing on eating a wide variety of foods that "support your immune system so that it can function at an optimal level" is key to a well-balanced healthy diet.

Lacy Ngo, MS, RDN

We cannot eat foods that boost our immune system, but we can eat foods that support our immune system so that it can function at an optimal level.


— Lacy Ngo, MS, RDN

Cooking From Home Has Increased

Research conducted by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) has found that since COVID-19 affected the United States, 60% of Americans have began cooking at home more.????? It's no surprise given many were shifted to a stay-at-home work environment, Dr. Neison shares.

She says, "I’ve had many patients learn how to improve their shopping habits and the time at home has allowed for slow cooking. For instance, some will start the dinner prep on their mid-morning break and finish it by dinner."

Registered dietitian Sheri Berger, CDCES, has seen this firsthand with her patients as well, noting that an increase in scratch cooking from home has become a regular part of many daily routines. Berger shares that cooking at home has the potential to have many positive health benefits, such as being able to control the ingredients, like the amount of salt used in recipes.

With the influx of breads, baked goods, and higher carb items often seen in the media as the go-to scratch cooking Americans were embarking on when stay at home orders went into effect, Berger does encourage patients to focus on "striving for healthy and realistic choices by filling up their plate with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and lean meats."

She also suggests that you "add in a dash of comfort foods as needed and partake in regular movement that you enjoy; treat your body and soul well in these trying times."

Family Meals Have Become a Regular Routine

Research published in January 2020 shows that eating family meals together has positive benefits not only on dietary outcomes but also family functioning.????? While this review was published prior to COVID-19, a follow-up survey interviewing 1,000 adult Americans was conducted in August 2020?? and highlighted some promising results.

  • Findings demonstrated that 94% of Americans are cooking at home as much as or more than prior to the start of the pandemic.
  • Three-quarters of respondents are enjoying the same amount or more of family meals (either in-person or virtual) compared to pre-pandemic routines.
  • This survey also confirmed that family meals keep people connected. Seventy-one percent (71%) of people who have been eating more in-person meals (and 70% having more virtual meals) agreed that they felt more connected to their family since the pandemic started.
  • Two-fifths (40%) of respondents said that they ate better and/or healthier with others than when they ate alone.

While small in sample size, these findings echo what Ngo and Dr. Neison have seen in their practices.

Emotional, Physical, and Financial Stressors Have Led to Increased Stress Eating

Stress eating has been on the rise across the globe since COVID-19 hit the world.????? Both Ngo and registered dietitian nutritionist Kim Rose-Francis, CDCES, CNSC, have seen this firsthand with their patients.

Whether it's financial stress from a layoff, physical stress from a preexisting condition or COVID diagnosis, or emotional stress from the toll this entire situation has played on their health, Rose-Francis notes her patients have experienced a 'triple-toll' on their physical and mental health.

"My patients come to me with a desire to take control of their health. Because of increased lay-offs, which result in financial dilemmas, there is greater emotional stress being carried by many. This stress may result in an increase of issues with blood sugar and blood pressure levels. Almost all of the patients I am currently consulting with tell me they engage in stress eating. This alone may exacerbate an existing condition or prevent them from meeting their food and nutrition goals."

But, there is a light at the end of this dark tunnel. Food and nutrition can play a big role in stress. Rose-Francis suggests people be holistic in their self-care.

She suggests, "Get adequate rest each night; eat plenty of fruits and vegetables (which are filled with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that help keep the body strong and healthy); find an activity to alleviate stress (knitting, reading, watching Netflix, or solving crossword puzzles); and live in the present. Try not to worry about the future, but enjoy what you have in front of you right now. There is no help or hope in stressing over what may or may not be."

Kim Rose-Francis, RDN, CDCES, CNS

Almost all of the patients I am currently consulting with tell me they engage in stress eating. This alone may exacerbate an existing condition or prevent them from meeting their food and nutrition goals.

— Kim Rose-Francis, RDN, CDCES, CNS

Telehealth Is Increasing, Especially Amongst RDs

The ease of access to seeking treatment by a trained healthcare provider is increasing, thanks to softer regulations being granted in the realm of telehealth.???? While telehealth has existed for some time amongst varying professional disciplines, it hasn't always been the easiest path to navigate.

Thanks to these new guidelines, many healthcare providers, especially registered dietitians, are finding ways to make their services more accessible for their patients.

Rose-Francis shares, "A lot of people are trying to take their health and overall wellness into their own hands. The pandemic has really opened our eyes to see how otherwise manageable preexisting conditions may be detrimental when coupled with COVID-19."

She says this has helped lead to a boom in telehealth medicine as more people seek care from the comfort of their homes.

Kim Rose-Francis, RDN, CDCES, CNSC

The pandemic has really opened our eyes to see how otherwise manageable preexisting conditions may be detrimental when coupled with COVID-19.

— Kim Rose-Francis, RDN, CDCES, CNSC

She goes on to note, "People are now tenaciously motivated to hold themselves accountable on their wellness journey. They are really taking the 'bull by the horns' as they order less take-out and eat more fruits and non-starchy vegetables. Some have even begun an exercise regimen."

Rose-Francis thinks telehealth nutrition will continue to evolve throughout the duration of the pandemic, especially in light of new variant strains. "People want to ensure they are doing everything they can to keep their bodies healthy in the midst of the unknown," she says.

What This Means For You

The impact that COVID-19 has had on a national nutrition level is substantial. However, how the pandemic has affected food and nutrition behaviors amongst individual households is very different.

All Americans have faced some degree of stress from this abrupt upheaval of life as we knew it over the past year. What's important is that continued focus be given to the positive things you can do within your control that start with feeding and nourishing your body with a variety of accessible, wholesome foods.

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Article Sources
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