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 the pandemic stress of COVID 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 stress on our eating behaviours. While time at home can provide more time for healthy food preparation, intake of high-energy density foods has been on the rise for some people. This presents at-risk adults with the prospect of dealing with 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. Dr Buckland assessed dietary survey responses from 588 people during the first UK lockdown from May to June 2020.

Junk food brings pandemic stress relief
Working from home can make it all too easy to snack away the day.

The snacking scale

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 reported increased snack intake, but 26 percent reported decreased snack intake. Further, 20 percent reported no changes to the amount of snacks they ate during lockdown.

“We also 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.”

Junk food brings pandemic stress relief
Hard to resist, easy to devour: some are turning to salty snacks to ease their stress.

Managing the munchies

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 pandemic 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,” Professor Kemps says. “This indicates that those who experienced higher levels of stress reported greater increases of sweet and savoury snack foods. 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, lockdowns are a risky period for increased food intake. Especially for those who have difficulty controlling food cravings.

“Our findings support the use of strategies that help people manage their cravings,” Professor Kemps says. “This would minimise the risk of increased snacking in lockdown.”

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.