Life under lockdown: Diet and health behaviours during COVID-19

February 12, 2021

This article has not been updated recently

COVID-19 has had an enormous impact on our lives. To find out more about how it has affected our lifestyles and habits, we released a survey in the ZOE COVID Symptom Study app asking how your diet, exercise, and sleep habits have changed during the pandemic.

Over 1 million of you took part, making this the largest study of its kind anywhere in the world - thank you! The full results have been written up and submitted to a leading scientific journal for peer review and publication.

In our latest expert webinar, Dr Sarah Berry, Nutritional Scientist at King’s College London and our lead nutritional scientist who designed the survey, Professor Christopher Gardner, a Nutritional Scientist from Stanford Medical School, and Rebecca Tobi, a Registered Associate Nutritionist from The Food Foundation, discussed the top line findings from the study and how life in lockdown had shaped our diet and health behaviours.

How has COVID-19 disrupted our lives? 

We asked contributors to fill in a detailed survey looking at how their diet and behaviour changed during COVID-19 (July-September 2020) compared with February 2020 (pre-pandemic).  

We then used this data to create a ‘disruption index’, representing how much each person’s life had altered in five areas: diet quality, snacking, sleep, exercise and alcohol consumption. 

“If any of these areas changed during the lockdown, whether they went up or down, you were given a score of one for each variable,” says Sarah. These scores were then added up to give an overall disruption index. 

“Everyone was allocated a disruption index on a scale of zero to five, with five being the most disrupted and zero being the least disrupted.” 

Our data showed that two-thirds of UK participants experienced some level of disruption to their diet and lifestyle. The effects of the disruption varied widely between individuals, with people making changes to their lifestyles in different directions during the lockdown. 

How have diet and lifestyle changed during the COVID-19 pandemic?

This figure shows the proportion of people who experienced increases or decreases in weight, snacking, sleep duration, alcohol frequency, alcohol amount, physical activity, food access, and overall diet quality during lockdown compared with before the pandemic. 

We are all individuals with our own unique circumstances, and we all respond to change differently, so it makes sense that our data showed massive variation in how people’s lives changed during the pandemic.

For example, 22% of participants reported snacking less during the lockdown, while 18% said they snacked more. Similarly, some people drank more alcohol, while others drank less. 

“I'm not surprised that in this dynamic situation, we've seen disruption in both directions, some snacking less, while others are snacking more,” says Christopher. He highlights that some people may not be going out to coffee shops and snacking less as a result, while others may be curled up on the couch and snacking more for comfort. 

For some, the pandemic gave them the motivation and time they needed to improve their lifestyle. Our data showed that people who had more unhealthy habits before the pandemic were more likely to improve their practices during the lockdown. 

So, did these healthier habits lead to weight loss?

“Although weight didn’t change on average we saw that the weight change was highly variable between individuals,” says Sarah. 

The results showed that 32% of participants lost an average of 4.0 kg, while 34% of participants gained an average of 3.5kg, with people who experienced more disruption gaining or losing more weight than people whose lives were less disrupted. 

Why are some groups more disrupted by COVID-19 than others?

Looking at the variability of responses between individuals highlights how some groups have been more affected by the pandemic than others. 

“When we looked at who was most disrupted, we found that the highest disruption was seen in younger females and those living in more deprived areas,” says Sarah. 

Rebecca thinks that school and childcare closures may explain why young women experienced more disruption, while problems accessing food may contribute to the disruption seen in people living in deprived areas. 

“We know that 5.1 million adults have experienced food insecurity in the UK in the six months to August,” says Rebecca. “The groups that have been worst affected are families with children, people living with a disability or underlying health conditions, and people of black and mixed ethnicity backgrounds.” 

How to get healthier in lockdown 

If you are looking to improve your lifestyle and get healthier during this lockdown and through the rest of 2021, our experts have some tips for you.  

“I would do some soul searching and say, I'm going to be kind to myself and I'm not going to try to fix it all at once. So what area do I feel like I have the most room to move in? And what do I feel motivated to work on first?” says Christopher.

Sarah advises aiming for a generally high-quality diet by decreasing refined carbohydrates and increasing whole grains, pulses, fruits and vegetables, which will help to keep your trillions of gut microbes (microbiome) happy. We’ve also got some tips for how to swap out unhealthy highly-processed snacks for healthier treats.

But she also warns against focusing too much on any one kind of food and recommends eating in a way that brings you pleasure. 

“Food is there to be enjoyed!” she stresses.

For more tips on improving your diet and gut health, check out our nutrition blog. 

We’ll be releasing another lifestyle survey soon

We are continuing our research into how COVID-19 has impacted our lifestyles and choices. We will soon be releasing a new survey asking about your behaviours in the second half of the pandemic to find out whether any of these healthier (or unhealthier) habits have stuck.

When it’s ready, the survey will appear in the app. Please do take a few minutes to answer the questions and let us know how the pandemic is shaping your life.

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