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Lessons from the pandemic: What’s next in diet and eating behavior?

How pandemic-influenced shifts in consumers’ lives have altered needs and notions around diet and nutrition.

5 min read

Consumer InsightsFood

Cooking a healthy diet at home


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Symbolic of changes wrought by the pandemic, our 2021 Health & Wellness: Reimagining Well-being Amid COVID-19 report found that as consumers experienced pandemic related weight gain, they also voiced a renewed interest in dietary choices and food itself as not only a key tool for weight management but also for the foundational role it plays in health and wellness. Specifically, consumers say they employ a number of different eating approaches (as unique as consumers themselves), including eating in “an intuitively healthy way” and seeking dietary balance.

It makes sense: After months (now turning into years) of pandemic living, consumers began to rethink their approach to food by trying to have a better understanding of what goes into their food, adjusting their caloric intake according to changing lifestyles, and being more thoughtful about when to visit their pantry. Of interest, when asked how their diet differed from before the pandemic, 41% of consumers said “better or somewhat better.”

And yet, pandemic-influenced shifts in consumers’ lives have altered needs and notions around diet and nutrition with consequent changes in habits and the context in which foods and beverages are consumed. Two examples include:

Shifting habits — preparing food at home: While consumers are returning to restaurants, the rise in cooking at home has given some consumers a new degree of control and choice when it comes to “eating clean.” Specifically, home-cooked meals tend to have a health halo, but some consumers note portion control as a challenge that can undermine health benefits. The pandemic certainly activated greater interests in cooking: Health and Wellness 2021 found that 37% of consumers said they started or increased cooking in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Shifting contexts — home pantries always at hand: While some are returning to the office, consumers working at home are there most of the day with pandemic-stocked pantries. In addition, the commutes and scheduled breaks that once marked the day have gone by the wayside for some. With fewer barriers to eating at any time, consumers feel a need to be more mindful eaters. Echoing issues with changing eating contexts, among consumers who thought their health worsened during 2020, Health and Wellness 2021 notes that 23% said constant access to their pantry made it harder to stay healthy.

Shifting habits and contexts have resulted in consumers saying they also aspire to eat with consistency in their approach. While a majority of consumers (58%) claim to favor a disciplined and consistent diet (over pleasure and variety), there may be an aspirational aspect to this approach. Trends linked to these changing habits and contexts include:

  • Frequent home cooking has brought many consumers closer to the individual ingredients in their meals, seeking out less processed options and key nutrients from food: fiber, protein, calcium, nuts and seeds, and whole grains. Health and Wellness 2021 also found that renewed focus on vitamin D’s immunity benefits and potential ability to protect against severe COVID-19 symptoms has this nutrient topping consumer priorities for dietary inclusion.
  • Sugar and sodium, on the other hand, remain at the top of consumers’ blacklist. However, consumers are finding ways to incorporate sweetness into their eating and drinking routines by managing occasions and reaching for more healthful sweetener choices.
  • A focus on gut health: Our recent trends report “Ideas in Food” analyzes how as the digestive wellness trend deepens, consumer awareness of the microbiome as the root of all wellness and its connection to our mental well-being and immunity is expected to mainstream more broadly.

Looking forward

Increasing numbers of consumers are seeking more plant-rich (not meat-free) diets. But while consumers’ search for plant-based labels has gone mainstream in recent years, a growing concern about ingredients and processing levels of these products—especially plant-based meat alternatives—is now sending more discerning consumers in search of simpler, purer replacements.

The meaning of diet (and shifts in eating behavior) are topics we’re investigating in our new study Modern Approaches to Eating 2022 which examines the overall landscape of eating approaches and specific diets today. One initial finding: In terms of meaning, the word “diet” today, while culturally relating strong connotations of control and restriction, tends to be used by only a relatively small number of consumers when describing their eating approaches compared to a greater number who say they have some kind of conscious, intentional approach to eating.

With the COVID-19 pandemic precipitating shifts in consumer needs, tactics, and contexts around food, diet and physical activity, approaches to nutrition and eating are evolving. Consumers continue to avoid many of the same markers of processed food, but higher engagement with cooking during the pandemic is likely to intensify scrutiny of ingredient panels in the near term, and perhaps longer.

Consumers acknowledge a role for indulgence in their relationship with food and COVID-19 coping strategies—but after many months of the pandemic, they are also more aware of the impact of less intentional eating approaches. Consumers’ heightened awareness of processed and sugar-laden products in the fresh perimeter should be considered by food retailers and manufacturers as they assess the contexts and frames of reference for individual brands as well as the overall experience and perception that consumers have of a store.

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As CEO of The Hartman Group, Demeritt drives the vision, strategy, operations and results-oriented culture for the company’s associates as The Hartman Group furthers its offerings of tactical thinking, consumer and market intelligence, cultural competency and innovative intellectual capital to a global marketplace.


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