Patrick Ladbury – former Director of the National Social Marketing Centre – looks at the impact of lockdown on eating habits.
Obesity, arguably the greatest health concern of our generation – aside from the obvious COVID-19 – has been elevated in the spotlight once again by comments from Prime Minister Boris Johnson who attributes his recent intensive care stay whilst being treated for coronavirus to his excess weight. “It’s all right for you thinnies”, he is reported to have remarked to colleagues, alluding to research which has suggested that people with Covid-19 are twice as likely to require hospital treatment.
The Prime Minister’s frank admission, coupled with society walking the tightrope of taking tentative steps to emerge from lockdown whilst limiting the transmission of coronavirus, has turned attention to the impact lockdown has had on other public health risks, in particular, obesity.
Former Director of Nutrition and Dietetics at Kings College Hospital, Rick Wilson, in his recent SAY guest blog discussed the need for energy balance and how we need to balance the energy we expend with the energy we consume in order to maintain the same weight. While there has been much discussion around energy expansion and physical activity during lockdown (the rise of Joe Wicks’ ‘PE with Joe’ daily sessions, early evidence of an increase in cycling and early government instructions to only go out once to exercise) there has been less of a focus on energy consumption and what and how much we are eating.
At the start of the lockdown people stockpiled, following classic herd behaviour, and buying in as much as they could in case it wasn’t available later. As we know from numerous studies, when food is within easy reach then it is more difficult to resist (The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment being the most famous example) and therefore people were likely to eat more during the first few weeks of the lockdown.
It is also likely that people are eating more sugary foods. During stressful times the body tends to crave high-calorie and high-sugar foods which provide short-term bursts of energy. Stress also leads to elevated cortisol levels, which can increase appetite. And sugary foods generate dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with motivation and reward which people are craving as they can’t treat themselves in other ways. Some people also have a tendency to blame external factors on their own unhealthy behaviours and the coronavirus can provide an ideal excuse for comfort eating.
However, on the other hand more people now have time to cook (one of the main reasons people give for having ready meals is convenience), more families are sitting down together to have a meal – a factor in reducing obesity in families – and of course people are eating out less. People are also learning how to cook differently; simplicity is celebrated, store cupboard essentials are maximised, helped by influences from celebrity chefs, such as Jamie Oliver and his ‘Keep Calm and Cook On’ cooking TV series which aims to inspire healthy and purse-friendly meal options during lockdown and beyond.
Researchers at the University of East Anglia launched a new project last month to track the health of the nation during lockdown. They are monitoring and tracking how lifestyle behaviours changed as a result of the lockdown and it will be very interesting to see whether our eating habits have changed for the better or worse.
The government’s ‘war on obesity announcement’ is all very well and good in principle, however to exert long-lasting change in practice, they will need to ensure that they support people in moving through the Initiation and Learning phases of creating a new habit and reinforce the Stability phase of habit making so people don’t revert back to old ways when lockdown restrictions are lifted. Let’s hope this opportunity is not missed.
By Patrick Ladbury
About Patrick Ladbury
Patrick has been leading behaviour influencing programmes and training courses across the world for over twenty years, working on projects as diverse as obesity reduction on St Helena, water management in Jordan, a hand washing programme in South Sudan and numerous health and travel programmes in the UK.
He was a Director at the NSMC for 8 years, helping establish it as a successful social enterprise following its initial grant from the Department of Health and is currently working with Govia Thameslink Railway on changing travel behaviours as part of their coronavirus response.
 Making Health Habitual. Gardner et al https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3505409/