How COVID-19 has changed how Americans eat

By John Murphy
Published June 12, 2020

Key Takeaways

More than 8 in 10 Americans (85%) have changed their food habits since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, according to a new national survey. But, have these changes been for better or worse? Turns out, it’s a bit of both. 

“The vast majority of Americans have altered their food habits as a result of the COVID 19 pandemic,” wrote the authors of the 2020 Food and Health Survey, an annual survey commissioned by the International Food Information Council. This year, the online survey was conducted from April 8 to April 16, 2020, and included a nationally-representative sample of 1,011 Americans ages 18 to 80. 

“Cooking more at home is, not surprisingly, the biggest change, but many [Americans] are also snacking more, washing produce more than usual, and thinking about food in general. Consumers under age 35 are most likely to have made changes, both in terms of healthier and less healthy choices.”

While there are bound to be shifts in Americans’ eating behaviors from one year to another, with the coronavirus pandemic this year, the survey results showed many changes not seen in previous years. 

Interestingly, the survey found that people who were the most likely to have made changes in 2020 were women, people under age 35, and parents. 

Cooking at home

With restaurants shut down, approximately 60% of Americans report cooking more often at home as a practical necessity, if for no other reason. 

We’re divided between healthy eating and less healthy eating, though. Approximately 22% of Americans said they are eating healthier than they usually do, yet about 14% said they’re eating less healthy than before. 

Cooking at home is generally healthier, though. People who frequently cook meals at home eat healthier and consume fewer calories than those who cook less often at home, according to researchers of a study published in Public Health Nutrition.

“When people cook most of their meals at home, they consume fewer carbohydrates, less sugar, and less fat than those who cook less or not at all—even if they are not trying to lose weight,” said the study’s lead author, Julia A. Wolfson, PhD, MPP, who wrote the study as a PhD candidate at Johns Hopkins but is now assistant professor, Health Management and Policy, University of Michigan School of Public Health. 

She added that those who frequently cooked at home—6 to 7 nights a week—also consumed fewer calories on occasions when they did eat out.

Another survey, conducted in May by Influence Central, found that some of us are making healthier food choices amid lockdowns than we did before the pandemic, while some of us aren’t. Specifically, 43% of respondents reported eating more fruits now than before, 42% reported eating more vegetables, and 30% are eating more protein. 

On the other hand, 47% of respondents reported eating more sweets now than before, 24% are eating less vegetables now than before, 21% are eating less fruit, and 19% report eating less protein. These findings aren’t so surprising. Research shows that when levels of the stress hormone cortisol increase, even healthy non-stressed adults will eat more snack foods and junk foods.

Snack attacks

To put a number on it, about one-third of Americans are snacking more often than they did before the COVID-19 crisis, according to the Food and Health Survey. Fewer than 10% of Americans say they’re snacking less. 

Snacking habits differ by age, though, with younger adults snacking more. Specifically, 41% of Americans under 35 report snacking more than normal, compared with 26% of those age 50 and older. 

Parents appear to also be eating snacks to relieve stress, as 41% of adults with children under 18 are snacking more, compared with 29% of adults without children. 

But what are they snacking on? Snacks can be healthy (like fruits and nuts) or they can be unhealthy (like Fritos and donuts). 

National sales data show that salty snacks have been the number 1 food item that contributed to retail sales growth since early March, when consumers began changing their purchasing habits due to stay-at-home orders. As such, in-store sales of salty and savory snacks each grew more than 15% in the last 8 weeks, according to national sales data. 

That’s a significant sales increase for brick-and-mortar stores, but online is where the real action is. In fact, snack purchases through e-commerce sites are up 44% percent since March 1.

Not to be outdone, cookie sales have increased 147% during the coronavirus pandemic, according to

Health improvements

Despite the boom in cookie and snack sales, more Americans are trying to be healthier. Or, at least, more Americans say they’re trying to be healthier, according to the Food and Health Survey.

For instance, 43% of Americans report they’re following a specific diet in 2020. That’s up from 38% last year and 36% in 2018. Intermittent fasting has taken the top spot as the most common diet followed, kicking last year’s top runner, “clean eating,” to second place. 

The survey also found that nearly 6 in 10 Americans say they place more emphasis on their overall health now than they did a decade ago. At the same time, more than half of Americans say they put a greater emphasis on their weight now than they did 10 years ago.

The survey didn’t give reasons why more Americans are following a diet or why they’re placing more emphasis on their overall health and weight. A study published last year in JAMA Network Open may shed some light, however. The JAMA researchers found that, while more adults these days are trying to lose weight, the average BMI of Americans continues to increase.

“These findings suggest that although 34% to 42% of US adults in our study reported weight-loss efforts, many of them might either not actually implement weight-loss strategies or apply a minimal level of effort, which yielded unsatisfactory results,” said corresponding author Lu Qi, MD, PhD, director of the Obesity Research Center, Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine.

One strategy that more Americans are implementing now to help them make healthier choices is using fitness trackers. The Food and Health Survey found that nearly 1 in 5 Americans (18%) are using a mobile health monitoring device or app, and two-thirds (66%) of those using them say it’s led them to make healthy changes that they otherwise wouldn’t have made.

Bottom line

Undoubtedly, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused Americans to make major changes to their lives, including how they diet and eat. The question now: Will some of the healthy attitudes or behaviors surpass the unhealthy ones, and stick around for the long term? We’ll see what happens when this pandemic ends. 

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