2020 was quite the year! The coronavirus pandemic changed many aspects of life as we knew it, including how we eat, and it also helped shine a light on the health risks associated with a poor diet, among other things. Here are the most significant food and nutrition trends that emerged in 2020, what we learned from them and the wisdom we should take into the new year to maintain good health.
1. We cooked more
It stands to reason that with restaurant dining down this year, we cooked a lot more. Indeed, 40% of Americans say they’re cooking more often than they did before the pandemic, according to the FMI Foundation, a food safety and nutrition organization based in Arlington, Virginia. Cooking meals at home is generally linked with a more nutritious diet. In one study based on more than 11,000 participants, cooking more than five meals a week (compared to less than three) was associated with higher fruit and vegetable intake and better adherence to healthier dietary patterns, like the Mediterranean and DASH diets. On top of that, participants who frequently cooked meals at home were 28% less likely to be overweight and 24% less likely to have excess body fat.
In the past, Americans consumed about 20% of their total calories from restaurant meals. These meals tend to be higher in unhealthy substances, like sodium, added sugars and saturated fat, and lower in nutritious ingredients, like whole grains, seafood and produce. Granted, we’re all looking forward to re-emerging from our homes and dining out with friends and family soon, but if there’s one healthy food trend to take into 2021, consider keeping up your new cooking habit, at least for the most part.
2. We took comfort in food
Given the stress of a global pandemic and the merging of work and home life, it’s not surprising that comfort food made a comeback this year. One poll found an uptick in favorites like pizza, hamburgers, French fries and mac and cheese. Nostalgic brands like Fig Newton, Oreo and Ritz saw a spike in sales. Cereal purchases also skyrocketed in 2020, after years of sluggish sales.
But findings from a new study revealed that comfort eating during the pandemic resulted in weight gain for some people. In a survey of more than 50,000 people worldwide, 44% of participants noted an increase in unhealthy snacking since the lockdowns went into effect. People also reported a rise in the consumption of sweets and sugary drinks. So despite the boost in cooking, about 27% of people reported weight gain after stay-at-home orders were mandated. Among those who were already classified as obese, weight gain was even more common.
Comfort eating doesn’t need to be avoided at all costs. Enjoying a favorite family recipe at a holiday meal and baking a cherished dessert with your kids are meaningful ways to connect over food. However, if comfort eating (or overdoing it with alcohol) is used as a tool to handle anxiety and stress, it can lead to unwanted weight gain, and it doesn’t help you manage these emotions effectively.
Instead of reaching for food to soothe your emotions, consider other methods to help you cope. The Centers for Disease Control recommends deep breathing or meditation, regular physical activity and a healthy diet, as well as getting the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep each night. Therapy may be another helpful option.
3. Added sugars emerged as a significant public health threat
An excessively sugary diet is a driving force behind illnesses like Type 2 diabetes and heart disease, and these disorders appear to put people at higher risk of serious outcomes from COVID-19. This year, the Scientific Report of the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee recommended lowering added sugar intake from 10% of total calories to 6%, acknowledging sugar's role in a range of health problems.
Other countries are also trying to tackle this problem head on. Certain areas of Mexico have passed a ban on sales of sugary drinks to minors, a drastic move to help kids offset the ailments that stem from a sugar-laden diet. As a result of the pandemic, the United Kingdom announced new bans on junk food advertising focused on foods high in added sugar — along with those high in salt and fat — that are marketed to kids.
In the American diet, the leading sources of added sugar are sugary drinks, including tea and coffee with their sugary additions, candy and other desserts, sugary cereals and granola bars. Without question, one of the best things you can do for your health is to cut back or eliminate sugary drinks. And check food labels to see how much added sugar is hiding in your favorite items. This year also saw an updated food label, which has made it easier to identify the amount of added sugars in the foods you buy. Armed with this info, you can compare products and choose ones with lower amounts of added sugar.
4. Immune-boosting foods and nutrients took center stage
In 2020, sales of immune-supporting nutrients saw a 51% increase over 2019, according to New Hope Network, a market research company in Boulder, Colorado, focused healthy lifestyle products. Interest in immune-boosting foods also grew, according to a recent study published in the journal Nutrients that assessed Google search terms during a pre-pandemic period through the early months of the spring lockdowns.
There’s no singular immune-boosting diet, but an eating pattern that’s rich in fiber-filled, whole plant foods, such as fruits, veggies, pulses, whole grains, nuts and seeds, will supply nutrients, such as vitamin C, zinc and selenium, which can help optimize how your immune system functions.
You may also want to consider taking a vitamin D supplement. Evidence suggesting that low levels of this nutrient are linked with a more severe inflammatory response and higher mortality rates from COVID-19 continues to mount.
5. Plant-based eating continued to gain momentum
We stocked up on plant-based essentials this year, from frozen fruits and veggies to canned pulses to pastas. These foods are budget-friendly, more accessible and easy to store for long stints at home, making them an especially appealing health trend throughout 2020.
Interest in sustainability and healthy eating (such as the popularity of the plant-focused Mediterranean diet) are helping to drive this trend. Plus, a nutritious plant-based eating pattern that’s low in added sugars and heavily processed grains supplies the nutrients necessary to fuel your immune system and support a healthy sleep cycle — two top concerns amid the pandemic. In particular, a high fiber intake is linked with better rest, and fiber is only found in plant foods.
Hopefully, we won’t need to hole up at home or limit trips to the store for too much of next year. But as far as health trends go, plant-based eating is a keeper! Put more fruits, veggies, beans, legumes, seeds and whole grains on your shopping list, and aim to eat mostly plant foods, using meat as an accent instead of the main ingredient.