Research | 6 MIN READ

How COVID-19 is affecting the eating habits of Canadians

Kristen Sunstrum

Dietetics Practice Development Advisor - Keenoa

On March 11th, 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 as a pandemic. In Canada, amongst other countries, stay-at-home orders enacted by the government resulted in the shutdown of all non-essential services, disrupting businesses, schools and workplaces and the lives of Canadians.

As Canadians sheltered in place and began spending most of their time at home, interesting conversations surrounding food had begun to take place. Past the initial panic buying and stockpiling on non-perishables, Canadians began to change their eating habits, including how they accessed, prepared, shared and consumed food.

Canadians are consuming more prepared, comfort foods during the pandemic

According to an initial survey put out by Statistics Canada in March, Canadians increased their consumption of junk food and sweets by 27% at the beginning of the pandemic [1]. In a follow-up survey conducted in early May, this number increased to 35% [1]. An independent survey conducted by Nielsen indicated that 40% of Canadians were eating more foods prepared at home, however the diet quality was not specified [2].

A popular mobile food-delivery application, Skip the Dishes, reported that fast-food items, such as burgers and fries are the most popular items ordered on their platform during the pandemic and have seen a spike in desserts orders since social distancing public-health measures were put in place [3]. The collective changes of self-reported eating habits have even coined the popular term of gaining the “COVID-19”, or referring to gaining up to 19 pounds during the pandemic.

As sources suggest that Canadians' eating habits are shifting towards eating more processed, fast-foods during the pandemic, Health Canada has advised Canadians that those with nutrition-related chronic diseases may be at increased risk of severe complications from COVID-19 [4]. These chronic diseases include heart disease, diabetes and hypertension (high-blood pressure).

Canadians are preparing more foods at home during the pandemic

While Canadians may have reported eating more comfort foods, such as sweets & processed foods at home, people have also discovered (or rediscovered) a passion for home cooking, specifically baking.

With increased time spent at home, many flocked to grocery stores to make a specific homemade staple: bread. One major flour refinery in Canada reported a 25% increase in demand for flour [5]. This resulted in the refinery having to work around the clock and adjust packaging in order to meet the demand of Canadians.

Cooking and baking at home is also known to reduce stress, pass time, learn a new skill and engage children in home cooking. In fact, this aligns with two of the new Canada’s Food Guide recommendations on healthy eating habits: cook more often and eat meals with others.

Canadians are experiencing decreased food security during the pandemic

As the spread of COVID-19 enacted self-isolation and social distancing public health measures, job losses were a result of shuttering of businesses and mass lay-offs, resulting in national unemployment rates reaching record lows [6].

Consequently, food banks across Canada were anticipating a 20-50% increase in demand for food as the Canadian household budget for groceries dwindled [7]. This led to Food Banks Canada to pledge to raise $150 million to supply food banks during the pandemic [8].

However, many food bank executives echo the 2008 financial crisis and the long-lasting impacts decreased household budgets will have on food security in Canada. They anticipate that the increased demand for food bank services will last long after public-health restrictions have been lifted [9].

Restaurants are estimated to account for over one-third of food purchasing in Canada[10]. Therefore, food retailers, including grocery stores and supermarkets felt additional pressure as purchasing habits shifted. Food-supply chains became tested early on in the pandemic when Canadians stockpiled on household essentials and non-perishable items and this pressure increased later on as restaurants were ordered to close.

McGill Nutrition researchers want to collect more data to explore these reports

Nutrition researchers at McGill University began to carefully watch all of this unfold and decided that conducting a longitudinal study is imperative to a greater understanding as to how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the eating habits of Canadians.

As diet is the second greatest behaviour risk for developing chronic diseases (after smoking) [11]., undesirable changes in diet could put more Canadians at risk of developing chronic diseases in the future.

In contrast, research from Spain suggested that eating habits of their citizens during the pandemic actually shifted towards an overall healthier diet [12]. Therefore, it is important to know how the COVID-19 pandemic is specifically affecting dietary intake among people living in Canada.

Introducing the COVIDiet Study

Principal investigator, Dr. Stephanie Chevalier, PhD, RD is an Associate Professor at the School of Human Nutrition at McGill University and is spearheading the longitudinal COVIDiet study alongside co-investigators Anne-Julie Tessier, RD, PhD(c), and Dr. Anne-Sophie Brazeau, PhD, RD. Their research team includes six dietetics and nutrition students from McGill University.

Unlike previous surveys and general anecdotes from the public, the COVIDiet study aims to collect data on 2,000 Canadians to assess their changes in eating habits and overall well being. This includes collection of dietary data, as well as questionnaires which will survey access to food, psychological changes, physical activity, sleep and alcohol consumption. The study will also assess the impacts eating habits have on the incidence and management of chronic nutrition-related diseases, including heart disease, obesity and diabetes.

The first objective of the COVIDiet study is to evaluate how eating habits, diet quality and related lifestyle behaviours of Canadian adults are impacted by the public-health measures of the pandemic over one year. The second objective is to determine the association with eating behaviours and diet quality with socio-demographic, education, psychological and physical health factors.

The use of technology to collect nutritional data

Collecting precise nutritional data on 2,000 Canadians is not an easy task, which is why the research team is utilizing a novel mobile application called Keenoa. Keenoa is a mobile food-diary, which uses food-recognition technology to track eating habits and nutritional data.

In using Keenoa, participants will take a photo of their meal with their mobile devices and adjust portion sizes to create their food diary. In using this method of data collection, the McGill research team will have real-time access to a greater precision of data without increased effort from study participants. According to 15,000 current Keenoa users, it takes on average 5 minutes to complete a one-day food diary.

Keenoa mobile app

On the other hand, traditional dietary collection methods are often heavily reliant on memory, such as 24-hour recalls, or lengthy questions, such as food-frequency questionnaires which are subjective to interpretation. These methods may take up to 40 minutes to complete each day.

In longitudinal studies requiring follow-up, such as the COVIDiet study, encouraging participants is extremely important which is facilitated through the use of Keenoa. The application allows for direct messaging between researchers and participants which is useful to provide encouragement, clarification or answer questions.

What the COVIDiet study aims to uncover

In following up with Canadian participants over two years, The McGill research team hopes to uncover patterns in the data collected which could help guide public policy to help guide decision making in the event of another national health crisis. Areas of public health policy which could be informed include, food security, food safety, nutrition education and chronic disease management.

Furthermore, the information collected can serve as a large data bank, allowing researchers to see if changes in nutrition during the pandemic could be linked to changes in chronic disease incidence and management.

Participants of the COVIDiet study also have an option to receive a full nutritional analysis of their food intake by a Registered Dietitian. The greatest benefit however, is on a public-health level; where the information Canadians provide will contribute to a greater understanding as to how eating habits have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The COVIDiet study is actively recruiting eligible Canadians to participate in the study!

If you are interested in helping inform future public policy and to have an option to receive a full nutrient analysis, check to see if you meet the eligibility criteria here.



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