Have healthy, sustainable diets become more relevant in the wake of COVID-19?

Date : 24 September 2020

Hannah Skeggs

Nutrition & Scientific Affairs Manager

Despite COVID-19 impacting consumer behaviour there is still significant appetite for healthy, sustainable diets.


Before the pandemic, two thirds (66%) of consumers were open to changing their diets to be healthier and more sustainable. But since the national lockdown in March, many aspects of consumer behaviour have transformed.

In May, we hypothesised that healthy and sustainable diets would become more relevant for consumers, and for industry.

To gain insight into evolving habits around health and sustainability, we surveyed over 1,000 nationally representative UK consumers during lockdown in July 2020, replicating our November 2019 survey that fed into Appetite for Change. This article explores whether the desire to change diets for health or environmental reasons has evolved in the wake of COVID-19.

1. There is still significant appetite for change, but it has declined

Perhaps contrary to our hypothesis, during this time of disruption, consumer desire to change diets to be healthier and more sustainable has reduced.

This doesn’t come as a surprise - at the time of writing our hypotheses, few of us could have appreciated the scale or duration of change that we are now experiencing. Consumers are struggling with the amount of change in the wake of COVID-19 and human nature tells us to seek control and keep things as they are. Behaviour scientists call this Status Quo Bias. There’s safety in what we know or what we have done before, so we revert to this behaviour for many aspects of life, including our diets.

Although there has been a decline in the appetite for change, 57% of people surveyed in July 2020 are still making changes or thinking about making changes to their diets. This is over half of consumers and continues to present a huge opportunity for industry to support better choices and a positive transition.

And we see this positive intent translating into action as people cook more from scratch, are sourcing local produce and actively reducing their food waste – supporting our May predictions.

For the nation to shift towards healthier and more sustainable diets, evidence shows we must:

  • Increase the proportion of foods coming from plant-based sources (e.g. fruit, vegetables, nuts, wholegrain starchy carbohydrates, beans, pulses)
  • Reduce meat and dairy (especially red and processed meat)
  • Reduce foods high in fat, salt and sugar

COVID-19 has impacted all three of these areas. Notably, it seems to have driven polarising behaviour around meat eating and an increase of snacking.

Prior to the pandemic there was a rise of plant-based, flexitarian, vegetarian and vegan diets. The proportion of people eating meat in the UK has fallen significantly in the last nine months, with a significant rise in vegetarian and vegan diets from 9% of consumers in November 2019 to 15% in July 2020. Growth in vegetarian and vegan diets is seen across all demographics, but most strongly in younger people, aged 18-34.

There has also been a significant increase in those aged 55-64 choosing not to consume meat. Some 11% of this age group now follow a meat free diet up from 6% in November 2019 and the change is predominantly driven by women.

But that’s only half of the story. In contrast to those choosing not to eat meat, there has been an increase in consumption frequency for those that do. There are now significantly more people eating meat a few times a week or every day.

The increase in meat eating frequency is driven primarily by men and higher socio-economic groups remain heavier meat eaters, despite also having a higher proportion of non-meat eaters.

2. People rate their diets as less healthy and sustainable than before COVID-19

While most people continue to overestimate how ‘good their own diets are’ we see a significant downturn in how healthy and sustainable they assess their diets to be (see Appetite for Change). This suggests many people acknowledge that eating habits have got worse during lockdown.

This is reinforced by self-reported data from the COVID Symptom Study app, which suggests many are snacking more, and those who do have logged an average weight gain of 3kg during lockdown.

3. Health remains the primary driver for change

Personal health remains the biggest motivator for change and this has increased in relevance. Significantly fewer people are motivated to change their diets for environmental reasons than in 2019. However, environmental sustainability remains a supporting reason for change, especially for those aged 18-24.

It’s unsurprising that COVID-19 has amplified the value we place on our own wellness, as the government, media and our behaviour has now been focused on preventing ill health for several months. The pandemic has demonstrated that our diets are inextricably linked with our health. Before the pandemic, poor diet was responsible for one in seven deaths in the UK. Now, people living with obesity are more than 50% more likely to die from COVID-19.

The most significant shift in prioritization of health is seen in parents.

Parents now place much more weight on their own health than they did in 2019. Although the wellbeing of family is a still a big driver among parents, its declined significantly and is now on par with personal health. This could be driven by early media that children were less impacted by COVID-19 than adults, or it could be a result of parents re-evaluating the impact of them becoming ill while playing the role of breadwinner, teacher and entertainer.

4. Is this a greater industry priority?

The data shows healthier and more sustainable diets are still a priority for over half of consumers, but they would welcome support from industry to get there. Cost is still the primary barrier for adopting these diets, and we can see the nation’s health inequalities.

The pandemic has highlighted our reliance on an efficient and sustainable food system, and many businesses have already taken great steps to promote healthy diets and are looking to build back better.

It is critical that our industry continues to play its part in offering healthier, more sustainable and affordable diets. That’s why IGD has established a new project group including manufacturers, retailers, food service and nutrition experts to identify and test the most effective behaviour change initiatives to support change and we will share this best practice as it emerges. We look forward to you joining us on this journey.

Get in touch to get involved: [email protected]

Background: In 2019 IGD undertook comprehensive quantitative and qualitative research with behaviour change experts into healthy and sustainable diets. These findings were published in March 2020, to support industry in empowering better eating habits in Appetite for Change.

A detailed update on how the pandemic has changed behaviour including statistics and charts from this article can be downloaded free here.