Why the corona crisis is making you fat

The corona pandemic has turned life upside down. The way people eat has also changed, as a recent study shows. Experts demand that nobody should come to terms with this

How has the corona pandemic changed our eating behavior? This is what experts from the Else Kröner Fresenius Center for Nutritional Medicine (EKFZ) at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) and the Medical Faculty of the University of Munich (LMU) wanted to know. In September 2020, they asked 1,000 people about their eating habits during the corona pandemic. The study participants between the ages of 20 and 65 were all parents who lived in the same household with at least one child up to 14 years of age. The findings are astonishing - and in some cases worrying.

How does working in the home office affect nutrition?

Everyday life has changed in the wake of the pandemic - and that also affects eating behavior. But first to the accompanying circumstances of a changed everyday life: Two thirds of the respondents in the Munich study stated that they currently work from home, half of them always at home or with a change between home office and work; a third continue to go to work as usual. A third switch between home office and work, the rest go to work outside the home as usual. This also depends on the training and occupation of the respondents. For example, 40 percent of people with a high school diploma and university degree work from home almost all of the time. It is only twelve percent of those who have completed secondary school.

Some results from the survey by the Else Kröner Fresenius Center for Nutritional Medicine (EKFZ)

© W & B / Lukas Walbaum

What is on the table during the corona pandemic?

The vast majority of respondents (almost 80 percent) prefer the same foods as before. After all: Almost one in six stated that they ate more healthily. Many families whose parents work from home cook more often in their own kitchens than before the pandemic. Fruit and vegetables are then more often on the table with them. Sausage and meat are less common. That is good - but: there is also a lot more nibbling.

Why are we gaining weight during the pandemic?

More than a quarter of the adults surveyed gained weight during the pandemic. This applies equally to men and women. According to Professor Dr. Hans Hauner is not only due to the changed eating behavior. "Closed fitness studios and sports clubs also play a role here," says the nutritionist. "It's the combination of a lack of exercise and more food that is noticeable on the scales."

Another reason - quite banal, but understandable - could be that food acts as a kind of consolation. "If I am no longer allowed to get close to my friends and family, I want to compensate. And there is often food - especially unhealthy food," explains Hauner. This also shows how closely nutritional behavior and social life are often interwoven.

Are the children also gaining weight?

As the parents, so often so are the children. The study shows that nine percent of the children from the families surveyed have gained weight since the pandemic began. In the eyes of Berthold Koletzko, Else Kröner Senior Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Munich (LMU), these are alarming numbers. After all, the period up to the study survey in September was just six months. The second lockdown from November 2020 and that sports clubs and fitness studios had to close their doors again could further intensify this development, Koletzko fears.

A closer look at the numbers shows that toddlers and preschoolers tended to maintain their weight. Schoolchildren in particular have increased, especially ten to twelve year olds. With them, too, the two suspected causes come together: more food, less exercise. Almost 40 percent of parents stated that their child is significantly less active during these special times. According to their parents, this applies particularly often to 10 to 14-year-olds (57 percent). While toddlers everywhere and spontaneously find an opportunity to let off steam and play, school children are apparently dependent on sports fields or sports clubs - or at least school sports.

What role do social and economic factors play?

"It is worrying that the children of parents from low-income groups are particularly affected by the weight gain," says pediatrician Koletzko. "The offspring from socially disadvantaged families have a much greater risk of health problems."

Obesity, i.e. pathological overweight, is one of the biggest risk factors for severe disease courses in Covid-19, explains nutritionist Hans Hauner. He justifies this with the fact that being overweight leads to chronic inflammation in the body: "This in turn weakens the immune system and makes it susceptible to infections of all kinds." In addition, obesity worsens lung function. With a balanced diet and normal body weight, the immune system usually receives all the nutrients it needs to do its job. It depends, for example, on a sufficient supply of vitamins and zinc in order to be able to defend against infections.

Hans Hauner

© W & B / private

Will more people develop diabetes in the future?

Too little exercise, an unhealthy diet, weight gain - these observations from the past few months are not entirely new as a trend in children. However, this does not make them any less worrying, because they represent major risk factors for well-known diseases of civilization. "There is a particularly close connection between obesity and the risk of diabetes," explains nutritionist Hans Hauner. "We have to fear that in the short term the number of those who could develop type 2 diabetes will rise." Hauner reports on diabetes specialists who increasingly treat adult patients in their practices who can no longer get their blood sugar levels under control during corona times.

What is the conclusion of the experts?

On the one hand, the study sheds light on the fact that the eating habits in families strongly depend on social class, education and household income. This finding is not new, but it is fueled by the study as a fear that the corona crisis could accelerate the spread of obesity among children and adolescents in the long term. "If obesity occurs at a young age, it can hardly be brought under control later on," says nutrition expert Hans Hauner. Then it is only a matter of time "before affluent diseases such as cardiovascular diseases or diabetes occur more frequently in young adults."

Both Hauner and Berthold Koletzko insist that legal measures hold the food industry accountable. For example, there is a need for mandatory requirements for sugared drinks and meals at school as well as a ban on advertising for unhealthy food. The Nutri-Score, which color-coded foods according to their sugar, calorie or saturated fatty acid content, is also helpful - but not yet mandatory. "We urgently need legal regulations for the food industry in order to enable as many children as possible to grow up well," demands pediatrician Koletzko.