The ups and downs of eating habits during the coronavirus crisis

The big story about coronavirus and food is that huge numbers of people around the world have gained weight in quarantine and lockdown, which is being called “the Quarantine 15” in the US.

A woman eats popcorn while watching television.  (photo credit: PXFUEL)
A woman eats popcorn while watching television.
(photo credit: PXFUEL)
There’s both good and bad news about how eating habits and food consumption have changed due to the coronavirus outbreak, according to experts.
The big story about coronavirus and food is that huge numbers of people around the world have gained weight in quarantine and lockdown, which is being called “the Quarantine 15” in the US, a play on “the Freshman 15,” which refers to the amount of weight students tend to gain their first year in college.
Surveys from every corner of the globe show that at least 60% of the population is having trouble keeping their weight down during the pandemic. That is no less true in Israel, where weight-loss and exercise advice from experts have become a staple of media coverage from the crisis.
But there have been pluses as well as minuses as to how the virus has affected eating habits. Dr. Raz Hagoel, the founder and director of the Dr. Raz Medical Weight Loss Clinic, wrote recently in an article on the Mako website that the eating habits of Israelis have varied during the pandemic, and the fact that many have been eating at home more and ordering out less is a positive trend.
“People who did not lose their source of income, and instead of eating at a restaurant or getting food delivered to the office cooked at home, apparently consumed healthier food during the corona period. In contrast, for people who lost their livelihood or who were afraid to go shopping in the supermarket, the corona period was probably less healthy for them because of increased consumption of processed and cheap foods or because they ordered deliveries from restaurants frequently,” he wrote.
The good news according to Ilan Safriel, CEO of Wyler Tofu, the company that makes about 80% of the tofu sold in Israel, is that there has been a sharp rise in tofu sales during the coronavirus crisis. From 2017-2019, between 80,000 and 300,000 units of tofu were sold per month, but in the lockdown, that number jumped to nearly half a million, he said.
He can think of several reasons for this. “It’s cheaper than meat,” he said, and that could appeal to people who have lost their jobs, been furloughed or are just trying to save money.
Another factor is that the lockdown has given people time to cook. “Slowly, the public has learned how to prepare it,” he said.
He is also hoping that people are becoming more health conscious during the lockdown and that they have “seen the light” in terms of changing their diets to vegetarian or vegan diets, which are considered healthier and which lower global warming by reducing the number of farm animals raised. “At the end of the day, if we don’t take care of the earth, it won’t be here and we won’t be here,” he said.
But while some healthier food is being consumed, the rate of food waste has skyrocketed, according to Michal Bitterman, CEO and co-founder of The Natural Step Israel, an organization that promotes sustainability and seeks to minimize food waste.
“At the beginning of the first lockdown, people began panicking,” she said. “They didn’t know what would be available and for how long and they went crazy and started buying. It’s like in Jerusalem before it snows, but it wasn’t only in Jerusalem, it was all over. People were buying a lot of basic items, like eggs, milk and butter.” After the initial rush of panic buying that left supermarkets with empty shelves, people started buying online.
In the case of both the initial panic buying and subsequent online purchasing, which became more popular as people tried to avoid going out to avoid infection,”People bought a lot more than they needed.” Since most people don’t know how to store food efficiently, she said, “They ended up throwing out lots of food... Panic buying creates food waste.”
The online food packaging also creates a great deal of waste, she said, and much of it is unnecessary. But one positive trend that has increased during the pandemic is farmers selling produce directly to consumers.
“The farmers used to sell directly to restaurants, not so much consumers. But when the crisis started and they had all this food and people didn’t want to go to stores, people discovered that it is possible to buy directly from the farmers,” she said. “This produce is so fresh and tasty, I think that after the coronavirus is over, people will still buy this way.”