Research from the Scandinavian Journal of Psychology found evidence suggesting that the COVID-19 pandemic has had an overall positive impact on UK parents’ eating habits. However, the findings also revealed that negative emotions during the pandemic were associated with the adoption of poorer eating habits.
There is no question that the COVID-19 pandemic marked a change in history, with efforts to contain the virus quickly altering the fabric of everyday life. As stress and anxiety rose among the public, one aspect of life that was almost certainly affected was people’s eating habits. And yet, few studies to date have explored this.
Motivated by this lack of data, study authors Ali B. Mahmoud and his associates conducted a study to explore how perceptions of COVID-19 might be associated with parents’ food choices. They recruited a sample of 384 parents from the United Kingdom, between April 2020 and December 2020. The majority of the parents were mothers (78%) and all parents had children between the ages of 13 and 17.
The parents completed three items that measured the intensity of their perceptions about COVID-19. The items assessed the extent that parents felt the pandemic was causing them discomfort, the extent that they felt worried about themselves or a family member catching the virus, and the extent that they felt the pandemic had a negative impact on the population. Parents also indicated how often they felt certain emotions during the pandemic (e.g., angry, afraid, sad, bad, negative, unpleasant).
Finally, the parents answered questions that measured how motivated they were toward healthy eating behaviors (e.g., choosing nutritious food, choosing food that keeps family members healthy).
When the researchers analyzed the data, they found that heightened perceptions about COVID-19 had an overall positive impact on healthy food habits. However, more intense perceptions was also associated with more negative emotions, which in turn, was associated with reduced engagement in healthy food habits.
The researchers also found that mothers experienced more negative emotions compared to fathers. The findings further suggested that mothers were less likely to adopt healthy food practices in reaction to their COVID-19 perceptions. Moreover, mediation analysis revealed that negative emotions fully explained the association between gender and healthy food choices, suggesting that the reason mothers were less likely to adopt healthy food habits was that they experienced greater negative emotions compared to fathers.
Mahmoud and his team note the unexpected finding that COVID-19 perceptions had an overall positive impact on parents’ healthy eating, particularly among fathers. They say that turning toward healthier food choices during a pandemic is likely a decision aimed toward boosting the immune systems of family members. It is also likely that the combination of parents working from home and restaurant closures resulted in increased home cooking, which may have led to healthier food choices and more attention to nutrition.
Nonetheless, intense feelings about COVID-19 was indirectly associated with worse eating habits, through the triggering of negative emotions. The study authors suggest that targeted counseling programs might help educate people on how the COVID-19 climate can impact nutritional choices. They emphasize that negative food choices within the family unit can have a deep effect on children’s health and their future relationship with food.
The authors suggest that a future avenue of research would be to explore whether or not these findings hold across other cultures, noting that a family’s social class or ethnicity might influence the way eating habits are affected by the pandemic.
The study, “The Janus-faced effects of COVID-19 perceptions on family healthy eating behavior: Parent’s negative experience as a mediator and gender as a moderator”, was authored by Ali B. Mahmoud, Dieu Hack-Polay, Leonora Fuxman, and Maria Nicoletti.