By Giovanna Caparello (Nutritionist Biologist and Nutrition Science Student at the University of Tor Vergata, Rome) |May 12, 2020
On January 30, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared the COVID-19 epidemic as a public health emergency of international concern. Thus began a historical period in which populations all over the world underwent the lockdown. Modern society’s lifestyle, used to be too hectic, has suddenly stopped. Activities (work, recreation, and social events) have stopped abruptly and this has forced many people to change their lifestyles. Many researchers have therefore wanted to investigate which aspects affected most people’s lives.
What social isolation caused in the daily life of the Italian population?
The restrictions applied to limit leaving home literally “upset the everyday life” of people. An ISTAT (Italian Institute of Statistics) report confirms that even the most physiological needs of sleeping and eating have undergone many changes. Most of the people who stayed at home and stopped their regular work rhythm said they had more time to take care of themselves, their children and their household chores, and to spend more time watching TV, playing with the computer and listen to the music; social interactions and creative activities were carried out through the allowed channels (calls, video calls, internet, and social networks). The time spent reading books and play video games has also increased, especially among the younger ones.
What does emerge from researchers’ investigations on lifestyle and eating habits during the lockdown?
Very interesting data emerged from a survey conducted in all Italian regions, thanks to a research project “Eating Habits and Lifestyle Changes in COVID19 lockdown” (EHLC-COVID19), coordinated by Prof. Laura Di Renzo, created by the School of Specialization in Food Science and from the Section of Clinical Nutrition and Nutrigenomics, of the Department of Biomedicine and Prevention of Tor Vergata, Rome, directed by Prof. Antonino De Lorenzo. This project was launched in April 2020 through the use of a web-survey aimed to assess how much the eating habits and lifestyle of Italians changed during the pandemic of the new Coronavirus.  According to the data, the Italians spent more time in the preparation of homemade pizza (33.6%) and desserts (43.7%). The data from the supermarket Coop‘s research office showed that in the fourth and fifth weeks since the spread of the coronavirus, the rush to buy flour and brewer’s yeast has increased by 205% (+114% in the first three weeks of the pandemic) and 203% (against +117%) respectively. Consumption of frozen and preserves such as legumes, vegetables, fish, and cheese has increased, while the consumption of fresh fish, packaged sweets and snacks, takeaway food, and alcoholic beverages has decreased (Figure 1). 29.8% of people admitted that they had not “taken refuge” in the so-called “junk food”, such as salty snacks, carbonated and sugary drinks, processed meat, packaged sweets. 48.6% of the population said they noticed a bodyweight gain during the period of isolation and 34.4% said they perceived an increase in the sense of hunger; particularly it was mostly found in the younger population. In fact, it is well known that living stressful experiences or negative emotions can trigger the phenomenon of so-called emotional eating, i.e. an increase in appetite not linked to physiological necessity, but because of emotional and mental needs. Another common phenomenon observed is eating more frequently out of a sense of boredom, especially foods rich in sugar and carbohydrates (“food craving”) to try to escape the monotony of spending so much time at home.
Eating habits, were further investigated through a validated questionnaire for the evaluation of adherence to the Mediterranean Diet (MD), a food and lifestyle model that has become part of the UNESCO heritage list. The survey has shown an overall Average Adherence to the Mediterranean Diet in Italy and it resulted that regions of North and South of Italy follow more the MD compared to regions of Central Italy.
What were the most significant aspects of lifestyle during the Covid-19 pandemic?
The survey promoted by the EHLC-COVID19 project wanted to investigate the aspects concerning the perception of change also on smoking, sleep, and physical activity habits. Sleeping quality and quantity were affected, in fact, the hours dedicated to sleep increased, individuals who slept more than 9 hours passed from 1.4% to 9.1% while 3.3% of people who declared themselves smokers before the pandemic, have stopped to smoke during the lockdown and the number of cigarettes and/or cigars consumed per day has also decreased.
The physical activity at home played an important role especially for those who already were used to practice sports, as the frequency of training sessions at home seems to have increased up to more than 5 times a week; probably the perception of having gained weight during social isolation has triggered a greater concern about health and weight control, therefore a rearrangement of the activities at home to pursue what can be called a healthy lifestyle not only regarding food but in its broader meaning (Figure 2).
What do we expect for the next steps?
The previous eating and lifestyle habits will probably be recovered or they are soon going to be recovered. An inadequate intake of Mediterranean foods exposes the whole population to specific oxidative damage. Our results comfort that the inflammation and oxidative damage, dependent on the consumption of junk and ultra-processed food, in the postprandial period contributes significantly to a greater susceptibility to develop obesity and other chronic diseases. On the other hand, the consumption of seasonal foods and a correct diet rich in nutrients with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activities, such as that suitable for the Mediterranean Diet, is highly protective. New investigations are already starting to be available on the scientific literature and this will allow us to deepen and study the impact of the change triggered by a situation that is still not totally defeat.
- Guo YR, Cao QD, Hong ZS, et al. The origin, transmission and clinical therapies on coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) outbreak – an update on the status. Mil Med Res. 2020;7(1):11. Published 2020 Mar 13. doi:10.1186/s40779-020-00240-0.
- Di Renzo L., Gualtieri P., Pivari F., Soldati L., Attinà A., Cinelli G., Leggeri C., Caparello G., Barrea L., Scerbo F., Esposito E., De Lorenzo A. Eating habits and lifestyle Changes during COVID-19 lockdown: an Italian Survey, 28 May 2020, PREPRINT (Version 1) available at Research Square [+httpp://doi.org/10.21203/rs-30403/v1+].
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