Junk food brings pandemic stress relief

28th June 2021 | Eativity editors

Have you been the victim of more snack attacks lately? A new study in the journal Appetite has confirmed that small luxuries, from sweets and chocolate to salty snacks, have helped to lift our spirits – and our calorie intake – during COVID-19 lockdowns.

Researchers in Australia and England have gathered evidence about similar experiences in the UK and Victoria to warn about the effect of extended pandemic lockdowns on our eating behaviours. While time at home can provide more time for healthy food preparation, intake of high-energy density foods (HED) has been on the rise for some people – presenting at-risk adults with the prospect of managing weight gain.

“The new stresses created by the pandemic appears to be associated with reported increases in overall savoury and sweet snack intake,” says lead researcher Dr Nicola Buckland from the University of Sheffield, who assessed dietary survey responses from 588 people during the first UK lockdown from May to June 2020.

Working from home can make it all too easy to snack away the day.

Participants indicated whether their intake of tasty, calorific foods such as chocolate, cake, ice cream and pizza had changed during the lockdown. These are foods that people typically report to find hard to resist and easy to overeat. As part of the study, participants also completed questionnaires that measured individual eating styles.

“The findings showed that, in terms of dietary changes, not everyone responded the same way to the lockdown,” Dr Buckland says. “Over half of the respondents [53%] reported increased snack intake, but 26 percent reported decreased snack intake and 20 percent reported no changes to the amount of snacks they ate during lockdown.

“When we looked at the participants’ eating styles based on their responses to the questionnaires, we found that participants who scored low in their ability to control cravings were also more likely to report increased snack intake.”

Hard to resist, easy to devour: some are turning to salty snacks to ease their stress.

According to Flinders University professor of psychology Eva Kemps, the 124 respondents in the Victorian survey also reported changes in food intake and eating styles during the lockdown, as well as their perceived stress levels. Similar to UK findings, of the Australian respondents, 49 percent reported increased snack intake during lockdown.

“Increased snack intake was associated with higher levels of perceived stress, indicating that those who experienced higher levels of stress reported greater increases of sweet and savoury snack foods,” Professor Kemps says. “Also, similar to the UK survey, participants with low craving control were most likely to report increased snack intake.”

The findings from both surveys show that for some people, especially those who have difficulty controlling food cravings, lockdowns are a risky period for increased food intake.

“Our findings support the use of strategies that can help people to manage their cravings, to minimise the risk of increased snack intake during lockdowns,” Professor Kemps says.

Want to hit refresh on your bad snacking habits? Check out this advice from wellbeing expert Dr Gina Cleo. For those who want to overhaul your diet or lose some COVID kilos, dietitian Susie Burrell offers these tips, while clinical nutritionist Gabrielle Newman has shared these common dietary mistakes you could be making.