The COVID-19 pandemic has caused drastic changes in food choices, dietary habits and general health. If the current state of affairs continues this could be detrimental to the health of the population.
Behavioural science techniques can be used to create better food habits, and reduce our unhealthy dietary choices.
Shifts in shopping choices and eating habits
Humans are naturally creatures of habit, in that we create certain routines, we like or enjoy ways of doing certain activities and we even allocate particular times in the day for our daily pursuits.
When these habits are disrupted due to external environmental factors, for many it can be quite unsettling and cause major shifts in behaviour. These can be both positive or negative changes based on each individual person’s preferences and what people value most.
With the never-ending coronavirus pandemic looming over us, many of you may have noticed shifts in your food shopping patterns, eating habits and general physical and mental health.
Are these food behaviour changes positive or negative?
A study by Janssen and colleagues in 2021 revealed that shopping habits were seen to shift from fresh foods to more long lasting foods including canned foods, frozen foods, cakes and biscuits.
People were seen to be shopping less during lockdowns and there was an overall increase in consumption of foods with a longer shelf life.
Interestingly, the study highlighted that although 15 – 42% of participants displayed a change in how much they ate and how often, these were not all negative changes.
In fact, the study showed that people diverged in both positive and negative ways, indicating that the pandemic has different effects on people’s lifestyles and their consumption patterns.
How has the pandemic affected dietary choices?
Another study by Bennet and colleagues found that lockdowns have had both positive and negative impacts across Europe and the world.
Their research highlighted people eat more snacks and increased the number of their daily meals. This was seen in people choosing to indulge in comfort foods, processed foods and fried foods.
With these negative diet habits many people were seen to experience increased weight gain and limited physical activity, as well as mental health issues.
Why are we making these behaviour shifts?
The reason for many of these behaviour shifts can be explained by our natural heuristics and biases.
When we first moved in lockdown, many of our regular everyday activities were disrupted. We were limited in how much we could buy, we were unable to go to the gym and making healthier choices was in general more difficult.
1) Intention-Action Gap
As a result an Intention-Action Gap was seen to form in many people. This is where a person intends to eat healthy, exercise regularly and keep a stable mindset.
However, because of being stuck at home it was much easier to relax, snack on foods and procrastinate the idea of finding other ways to maintain our general health. Hence the gap between intention and action.
This can be attributed to a certain type of conditioning many of us will have for ourselves when we get home. People tend to see their homes as a place to relax after a hard day at work.
Once we moved into this environment full time, our brains confused being at home with relaxing and enjoyment rather than work, making it even more difficult to make healthy choices.
2) Present Bias
Another variable that affects all of us is that we suffer from Present Bias. As the word suggest, present bias is where we value the present more and want to have immediate pleasures.
Naturally we find it more difficult to make a trade-off between the present moment and a time in the future.
With the unpredictability of lockdown many of us were unsure when we would be able to go back to a healthier lifestyle.
Due to our minds seeing this as a potentially high risk situation, we naturally gave in to the present bias and ate what was available and comforting.
How can we reduce unhealthy habits as COVID-19 evolves?
Below is a easy three step method to ensuring you can create a new habit and in time maintain these habits.
Let’s say we want to increase our physical wellbeing and add a walk into our daily lives.
Our first step is to:
1. Ensure activation – meaning we make sure we have a reminder and a set time for when we carry out our daily walk.
Thereafter we look to facilitate the process by:
2. Boosting ability – we make it easy for ourselves to complete this walk i.e. we choose a quiet time in our day where we can carry out the activity.
And thirdly to ensure we repeat the behaviour:
3. Make it rewarding – make it an experience that you want to repeat again. Listen to your favourite podcast or call a friend and chat while you walk.
This three step process can be used for any behaviour habit you want to implement and can help increase your healthy habits as COVID-19 continues to affect us.