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Warwick researchers reveal the truth about our lockdown diets

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Warwick researchers reveal the truth about our lockdown diets

New researchLink opens in a new window led by the Department of Economics has shed light on how eating and exercise habits changed during lock-down – or, in fact, how they changed a lot less than people believe.

Professor Thijs van RensLink opens in a new window and colleagues surveyed just over 1000 West Midlands residents in May 2020, several weeks into the UK’s strict lockdown when activities outside the home were severely restricted, and again in September 2020 when the rules had been relaxed.

Analysis of the resultsLink opens in a new window showed that for most people, lockdown made very little difference to the number of portions of fruit and vegetables they ate. However, one group bucked the trend – women who, pre-lockdown, commuted for more than 30 minutes to work. This group was the only one to significantly increase the proportion of fruit and vegetables in their diet – West Midlands men who saved significant time commuting did not change their diets.

Commenting on the findings Professor van Rens said:

“There has been widespread speculation that diets became less healthy during lockdown as a result of supply chain challenges and increased difficulty accessing shops and markets, and we wanted to investigate this.

“Perhaps surprisingly, we discovered that overall, people’s diets changed very little. If anything, people ate slightly more fruit and veg during lockdown than afterwards.

“The only group which significantly changed their eating habits were women who would otherwise have been commuting over an hour a day. We speculate that replacing the commute with working from home enabled this group to commit time and energy to exploring healthier meals.”

Survey participants were invited to comment on why their shopping and eating habits had changed during lockdown. Some people actively chose to eat a healthier diet in order to improve their chances of resisting the COVID-19 infection. Others more grudgingly began to cook at home because dining out or ordering food for delivery became too difficult under the lockdown restrictions.

The researchers also asked survey participants to rate their health, their life satisfaction and their mental health. People reported being less happy with their lives during lockdown than afterwards, and reported a significant deterioration in their mental health. Young people in full-time education reported the lowest mental health scores.

Professor van Rens added:

“Our study is one of a very small number which survey the same people both during and after lockdown. This means we can be confident that our results reveal actual behavioural change and are not driven by changes in the survey participants. This may also explain why our findings are different from some previous studies that find large changes in diets.”

  • Healthy diets, lifestyle changes and well-being during and after lockdown: longitudinal evidence from the West Midlands. van Rens T, Hanson P, Oyebode O, et al BMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Health 2022;5: doi: 10.1136/bmjnph-2022-000562
  • Listen to a podcast with Professor van Rens discussing the economics of diet and health hereLink opens in a new window.