COVID-19 has reshaped many things about our daily habits – our hygiene, awareness of personal space, and how often we leave our homes. How we eat has probably changed, too…so why are we snacking more than ever? Is it because we’re home all the time or we’re stressed out, or a bit of both? And will these seemingly inconsequential shifts in our eating behavior affect our long-term health?
As you read this post, are you snacking on something? If so, you’re not alone. Because of Covid, we are spending about 10 more hours each day at home, which means we’re closer than ever to our kitchens. Making thing worse is that we’re feeling more vulnerable and stressed than in pre-Covid times. And many of us now regularly seek alternative methods of food shopping, causing a spike in at-home grocery delivery and shelf-stable food purchases. This has ultimately shifted how frequently we are eating and what our food choices look like.
A full-fledged snack attack
With shelf-stability and comfort-eating a priority for most consumers right now, snack foods are tempting options. However, this innate draw toward comfort foods is being fueled by convenience, emotion, and nostalgia, and at the cost of choosing nutrient-rich foods and their inarguable health considerations.
According to Statista, the snack food industry has been bustling lately. Even more surprising is the sales growth from Q1 of this year, with mac & cheese sales increasing by over 175%, lasagne & pizza sales up 125%, ramen 117%, and baking mixes up over 150% with the accompanying frosting at 125%. Furthermore, coffee cakes, blueberry muffins, donuts, and cookies were all in the top 10 growth items between January 20th and March 21st, according to Nielsen AOD.
Of Nielsen Data’s Top 10 Food and Beverages for the first quarter of the year, beer makes it into the top three growth items, with soft drinks, energy drinks, chocolate, cheese, and cereal making it onto the list with sales trending upwards month over month at an increasing rate.
Why are we trending this way? Emotion & availability.
According to the International Monetary Fund, the world is likely to enter its worst recession since the 1930s. In the U.S., as of July 24, approximately 30 million Americans have filed for unemployment in the past five weeks. This social and political climate is unsettling, stressful, and has spurred insecurities both financially and emotionally.
There is no wonder our snacking habits are changing – the world is changing. This situation has reminded us of the intense connection our emotions have with food. Food, especially comfort food, can provide a sense of security, familiarity, and nostalgia – things that we can all agree would be nice to have a bit of right now. But at what cost?
Food companies have identified this emotional insecurity and are working to profit from it — both in-store and online. Online grocery delivery has, for the most part, served us well in the past few months — allowing us to cut down on trips to the store and remain socially distant. However, now the snack food market has joined the at-home-delivery bandwagon, making your favorite snacks now available for in-home delivery at the click of a button.
Why is this an issue and grocery delivery is not? Aside from the clear difference in nutritional value between essential foods and these salty, sugary treats, is the alarming fact that you can now just order your chips and donuts from your sofa.
According to the Consumer Trust Insights Council, the purchasing of snack foods, by and large, is a last-minute or spontaneous addition to most of our grocery carts.
This is manipulated by clever marketing with product placement and enticing labels, often begging us at the last minute to toss that bag of chips into our carts, even though it’s never on the top of the grocery list.
With the online snack delivery trend increasing, consumers are now planning out their snacking, spending $5 to $100 per month for these subscriptions, and making sure that these comfort foods are delivered to their doors and fully stocked in their pantries.
Risks with increased snacking
While it is part of human nature to want to soothe our stress and decrease our anxieties, our snacking habits demand a watchful eye. With our recommended daily intake of less than 25 grams of added sugar and 13 grams of saturated fats per day (based on a 2,000 calorie diet), we need to be mindful of our consumption.
When you consider that one 8oz bag of chips contains 80 grams of fats, and a small chocolate bar contains over 35 grams of sugar, mindless eating can put you over the limit all too easily.
Consumers whose diets have shifted to include more of these prepackaged foods high in fat, sugar, and salt are risking their metabolic health. Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, the Dean of the Freidman School of Nutrition, Science, and Policy at Tufts University, cited through his research, a recent national report that as of March 2020, poor diet is now the leading cause of poor health in the U.S., and has caused more than half a million deaths per year.
Dr. Mozaffarian goes on to explain that poor metabolic health, caused by diets high in saturated fats and added sugars, as well as high caloric intake, is the cause of immunity-impairing factors tin millions of Americans, including metabolic syndrome. The characteristics of metabolic syndrome include excess fat around the middle, hypertension, high blood sugar, and a poor cholesterol profile.
These types of symptoms suppress the immune system and ultimately lead to cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, and obesity-related cancers that have left many people nutritionally deficient and thus immuno-compromised, putting them at a greater risk of contracting and combating Covid.
The statistics are terrifying — of the U.S. population age 18 and up, only 12% of Americans are without high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, or pre-diabetes.
For those under the age of 65, these exact illnesses are the biggest risk factors associated with having a fatal reaction to Covid.
For the health and well-being of our families and our country, the time to take action is now…
Taking back control
So how can we rein in our anxieties right now without stressing ourselves out more? First, we must acknowledge our emotions. Penn Medical explains that identifying the fact that you are stressed and working to channel those feelings into an activity is a much more productive way of managing anxieties. They go on to suggest that healthy eating is more difficult without a routine. Plan your meals, and eat them at a designated spot in the house. This will help to make eating purposeful and not mindless, which can cause spontaneous overeating.
U.C. Davis Health echoes these sentiments but goes on to highlight the importance of understanding hunger cues. This helps avoid what they call “autopilot” snacking. If you are sad, anxious, mad, or bored, it is natural for your body to release cortisol, which signals the need to eat. Try to recognize your physical need for food – if you don’t feel hungry, don’t let your emotions trick you into thinking that you are. And reach for a glass of water instead.
When you want a snack to hold you over between meals, try snacking on fruit and adding a scoop of peanut butter for protein on the side, or having crackers with cheese and meat. Even veggies dipped in hummus or Greek yogurt are all healthy, filling, and yummy options.
University Hospitals also points to the need now more than ever to focus our nutrition on fortifying our immune system. It is not just about not snacking, but about making our meals meaningful and immunity enhancing. One way to help our decision-making is to make sure our healthy options are the first thing we see in the refrigerator or pantry. Research suggests that we are 30% more likely to choose the items that we see first – so keep a bowl of fruits cut up in the front of the fridge, or consider putting your fruits & veggies in a bowl on the counter.
The Mayo Clinic also recommends tracking your food. This serves to not only keep us “eating mindfully” and accountable for our calories, but also aid in identifying changes or lapses in our healthy eating habits.
But what all this research doesn’t say is that change is hard. So, during this time as we try to find a new normal, it’s important to not be too hard on ourselves…this is a difficult time for us all. If you slip, no big deal – we all do it.
But the important thing is to think long-term, as this situation will pass. And try to save those treats to make new memories with your friends and family, like making socially-distant s’mores with a backyard bonfire or having a popsicle on a hot day. We all have to treat ourselves and enjoy these special moments.
The Bottom Line
Though it's human nature to find ways to soothe our stresses and anxieties, we must remember that unhealthy snacking is only satisfying in the moment and can cause serious long-term health issues if not controlled. Try identifying your emotions and find healthy ways to channel them. And give yourself a break every once in a while. This will help ensure a healthy diet that protects us against outside invaders like colds, flus, viruses – and Covid.