• Home-cooked comfort food is in, healthy snacks are out. (Cook like an Italian)Source: Cook like an Italian
Data shows that the COVID-19 pandemic is changing the way we eat and exercise.
Nicola Heath

20 Aug 2020 - 2:20 PM  UPDATED 20 Aug 2020 - 2:26 PM

It's safe to say that, for many of us, life in 2020 is wildly different from times before the coronavirus pandemic hit.

With many public spaces off-limits, we're spending a lot more time at home. Catherine Saxelby, a dietitian and author of Nutrition for Life, believes that as a result, we're eating worse during the coronavirus lockdown. Saxelby says that while it's true we're cooking more, we're often choosing less healthy options such as pasta dishes and baked goods. In the face of the coronavirus, it turns out that carbs seem much less menacing. The focus is "staying alive, rather than living well," she says.

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We're also snacking more in our hunt for an energy boost and we're serving up snacks to hungry kids and housemates. Often, it means "reaching for the packet of salty crisps or pretzels to get through the day" rather than a protein ball or carrot sticks and hummus.

The stats reflect this. Data collated by IBISWorld reveals how COVID-19 is affecting our diet and our health. A CSIRO survey carried out in June found that 34 per cent of us reported raiding the pantry for snacks more frequently. Perhaps because we needed the comfort of calories, the snacks weren't always of the healthy variety: 32 per cent of us report that we're eating more junk food. We're consuming more than 3000mg of sodium and 36 grams of saturated fat per day, more than 50 per cent over the daily recommended intake.

What we're drinking

While pubs closed their doors during lockdown, alcohol consumption remained buoyant. In fact, the stress of lockdown life has led to an increase in alcohol consumption among women with child-caring responsibilities – in keeping with the 'wine o'clock' catch cry that you often see bandied about in mum's Facebook groups. For men, loss of work and income drove a rise in alcohol consumption. 

Saxelby isn't surprised. "Life is full of stress at the moment," she says. "You only have to listen or watch the local news each day to grasp this." And in times of stress, many people turn to alcoholic drinks for comfort. "Together with ice-cream and chocolate," Saxelby says alcohol seems to help "us cope when life becomes too stressful – it's a way of coping, but it's not a healthy way. 

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While we're drinking more booze, soft drink consumption has fallen. We typically consume soft drinks at pubs and restaurants or when we order takeaway. Liam Harrison, an analyst at IBISWorld, says restrictions on hospitality venues - restaurant industry revenue fell by 25.1 per cent in 2019-20 – have prompted a shift "away from sugary beverages, at least in the short term.

Harrison says, "Whether this becomes a longer-term trend does remain to be seen, however, the longer this goes on – particularly for Victoria right now – the more potential it has to change long-term habits."

Burning calories during COVID

The lockdown has also impacted how much physical activity we're engaging in. When the lockdown began in March, I for one had every intention of going for a daily run and taking advantage of the many workouts suddenly available online. The reality was very different: between work, home-schooling and domestic chores, exercise frequently fell to the bottom of my to-do list.

It turns out my experience was common. The CSIRO study reported that 41 per cent of respondents exercised less in June and a similar number – two in five – said they had gained weight.

"We need to take stock and find ways to overhaul our daily diet."

These changes in lifestyle – while hopefully temporary – will have an impact on our long-term health. The level of obesity in Australia's adult population is expected to rise to 70.3 per cent in 2020-21, up from 69 per cent in 2019-20. "Despite initiatives to improve the dietary habits of Australians, the ongoing domination of food supply by unhealthy fast foods, especially for young people, is expected to drive the level of obesity in Australia to 75.5 per cent in 2024-25," says Harrison. 

Saxelby would like to see us give our efforts in the kitchen in 2020 a healthy twist and brew kombucha at home rather than bake banana bread. "We need to take stock and find ways to overhaul our daily diet and get more exercise in," she says.

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