Unhealthy Eating Patterns More Common During Pandemic

By Megan Brooks

June 10, 2021

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Consumption of healthy foods such as vegetables and whole grains declined during the pandemic, according to a study of the diets of more than 2,000 Americans before and during the pandemic.

"The unhealthy changes and dietary behaviors that we observed are concerning," said Dr. Caroline Um with the American Cancer Society (ACS) in a presentation of the research at Nutrition 2021, a virtual conference hosted by the American Society for Nutrition (ASN).

"Despite increased vaccination efforts, declines in vegetable and whole-grain consumption may persist and could contribute to unhealthier dietary patterns, especially among women and certain racial/ethnic populations, which may increase the risk for waking and chronic disease," said Dr. Um.

"Since early last year, the COVID-19 pandemic caused drastic changes in daily routines and behaviors for most Americans. As cases continued to climb and social-distancing restrictions were enforced, there were also changes in food-supply chains and food access due to panic buying, increased food prices and record unemployment rates," Dr. Um noted.

To examine whether dietary behaviors were also changing, researchers examined data before and during the pandemic from the Cancer Prevention Study 3 (CPS-3), which enrolled over 300,000 participants.

Dietary data was collected in 2018 using a semi-quantitative food frequency questionnaire, which reflected usual intake of foods and beverages over the past year. In July and August of 2020, an online COVID survey collected dietary data from 2,335 CPS-3 participants.

While diet quality improved slightly, on average, from 2018 to 2020, consumption of component food groups decreased significantly, with the greatest decreases in vegetables and whole grains.

"We were surprised to see decreased consumption for a lot of the healthy foods. This decrease was the most pronounced among women, Black and Latino study participants, and participants who gained at least five pounds or more since 2018," Dr. Um said in a conference news release.

People most apt to have low diet-quality scores during the pandemic were men, current smokers and those with less education, lower physical activity, higher body weight, and those who gained 20 or more pounds since 2018.

"Undesirable changes in diet during the pandemic, particularly decreases in vegetables and whole grains, may contribute to weight gain, poor metabolic health, and subsequent higher risk of chronic disease," Dr. Um and colleagues write in their conference abstract.

A related study presented at the conference provides more evidence that the pandemic has contributed to unhealthy eating habits. Dietary data collected in June 2020 for 3,916 U.S. adults found that a sizeable portion increased their consumption of unhealthy snacks, desserts and sugary drinks during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Of note, 16% of respondents said they often or always consumed more unhealthy snacks and desserts since the pandemic and 36% reported sometimes doing so, Dr. Sohyun Park of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported.

In addition, 10% of respondents reported often or always consuming more sugary beverages and 22% said they sometimes did.

The greatest increase in consumption of unhealthy snacks, desserts or sugary drinks occurred in women, Hispanic or Black adults, those younger than age 65, those with lower income/education and those with obesity.

"These dietary changes may impact metabolic health, disease risk and self-management if continued long term," Dr. Sohyun Park said in her presentation.

"Individuals may need help to avoid making these dietary changes permanent. Public-health professionals, registered dietitians, healthcare professionals, media and others can all play a role in supporting individuals. Ongoing monitoring of nutrition behaviors via surveys and surveillance systems will be important to understand the need for tailoring interventions as we enter the recovery phase," she added.

SOURCE: https://bit.ly/3w8rA26 American Society for Nutrition, held online June 7-10, 2021.

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