Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Is America Eating Its Way Through the COVID-19 Pandemic?

By Emily UdagawaPublished December 30, 2020

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With the COVID-19 pandemic highlighting the necessity of taking extra precautions to stay healthy, American eating habits have shifted to adapt to this new lifestyle. Though some have reported healthier diets, stress and other factors proves to be a source of unhealthy eating for many, exacerbating the already problematic obesity epidemic in America. The US can learn from its global partners to establish clear dietary guidelines tailored to the pandemic lifestyle and launch effective initiatives to combat obesity.

As one presses “next episode” on the third Netflix show they’ve watched in the past week, they subconsciously stretch their hand out to their collection of Cheetos, Snickers Bars, and any other processed food they can get their hands on and grab their fourth cookie of the night...or was that their eighth cookie? 

The self-isolation period of the COVID-19 pandemic tested the diets of many people across America. With no access to Friday night-out dinners or Sunday brunches, many were forced within the walls of their home to prepare meals and manage their diet. While some thrived with their new at-home lifestyles, others cracked under pressure. 

Previous to the outbreak America was—and still is—in a nutritional crisis. With over 40% of the American adult population being obese, $147 billion dollars are spent annually on medical costs for the diagnosis and treatment of obesity-related conditions including diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. Not only does obesity affect individual health, it also hinders the productivity of the workforce, life expectancy, and thus the American economy through increased medical costs. 

The COVID-19 pandemic shines an interesting light on nutrition: health has become a major priority and any underlying conditions, including obesity, are a major liability to the susceptibility of catching the deadly virus. As of April of 2020, in New York City alone, 42% of COVID-19 patients hospitalized were diagnosed with obesity, 32% had diabetes, and 19% had morbid obesity. So how did American diets shift in response to this newfound necessity of being healthy?

A survey done by the International Food Information Council reported that 8 in 10 people in the US reported change in eating habits since the virus outbreak. Within this, 22% of people state they’re eating healthier, while 14% said they’re eating less healthy. “Healthy” in this case is categorized as a more balanced diet with less calories, sugar, and fat, and an increased intake of fruits and vegetables. The prime source of these diet shifts is the fact that people are eating from home more often. The Journal of Nutrition reported a correlation between eating healthier and eating in, stating that 21% of Americans’ caloric intake comes from restaurants due to the relatively unhealthy options and lack of awareness of unhealthy contents in a served meal. On the other hand, stay-at-home orders induced mental challenges that took a toll on eating habits as surveys have shown that 41% of parents are snacking more to combat stress during the uncertain time. Sugar and alcohol sales are booming and more people have reported that they are baking desserts such as cookies or banana bread to cope with the unprecedented amount of time they have in self-isolation. 

These shifts in eating habits also expose the nutritional discrimination that exists between socioeconomic classes. While financially stable households have the means to adjust to prepare healthy meals from home, for low-income households, food insecurity is a source of unhealthy eating. Over 26 million Americans filed for unemployment and now food banks and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) are facing an unattainable demand. Those who live in low-income communities without stable access to healthy and quality food have resorted to convenient and cheap highly processed foods to sustain their appetite. 

The need for initiatives that encourage healthy eating long-term is stronger than ever and globally, such initiatives have taken off. The Brazilian Association of Nutrition formed a comprehensive report outlining dietary guidelines and how to eat a nutritious diet in the context of the pandemic. This report establishes a standard of a healthy diet and also gives Brailizians a direction when shifting to their pandemic lifestyles. Furthermore, the Asian Development Bank in association with the WHO proposed short-term and long-term interventions for Southeast Asian countries to improve nutrition and food insecurity during the pandemic. Short-term proposals included better nutritional content of food aid packages, combining food distribution with nutrition education, and financial relief to farmers and agribusinesses for increased distribution of nutritious foods. Some long-term goals include improved food labeling, investment in agricultural technology, and sustained financial support to households. Given that the US is similarly struggling with both food insecurity and overnutrition, it would be beneficial for the US to begin to adopt similar initiatives. 

The pandemic is an uncertain and challenging time for everyone—and for some more than others. Nonetheless, health and nutrition is a major priority. As eating out becomes a distant memory, improvements in dietary choices are seen throughout the US. If anything, the pandemic has exacerbated the ripple effect of preexisting conditions such as financial instability and stress, which sponsored the unhealthy eating habits normalized in American culture. Overall, the pandemic has reinforced the importance of health and taught many Americans to think twice before grabbing that eighth cookie.