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What’s on the plate: Student diets during the pandemic

Updated: Dec 11, 2020

By Keirah Chen, Breanna Lu, Norah Shen, and Manasa Sriraj Dec. 9, 2020

Slides 1-5: Courtesy of Yong Ooi. Slide 6: Courtesy of Samuel Wu. Slide 7: Courtesy of Janice Shih. Slide 8: Courtesy of Yasmin Sharbiani

As the progression of the COVID-19 pandemic has led to the majority of students’ time being spent at home rather than at school, altered diets have become a widespread phenomenon.

When the pandemic hit, people started shopping for groceries differently: more customers purchased non-perishable foods than before. However, that can be harmful as these foods are often filled with additives and preservatives, which can ultimately lead to a greater intake of sugar and calories. The increase in sodium consumption can also raise blood pressure and put the consumer at greater risk for heart attacks and strokes.

On the other hand, more people have opted to shop online for their food or order takeout instead. Supermarket News states that during the pandemic, 78.7 percent of Americans polled have been ordering groceries. Upserve, a restaurant management service, reported that they experienced an 840 percent increase in online sales. The influx of people using takeout services is partially due to COVID-19—people may feel that ordering food is relatively safe, as it involves brief interactions between restaurant employees and consumers.

For others, takeout services are preferable because they are rather convenient and offer a variety of choices, allowing customers to order food anywhere and anytime. Recognizing the growing needs of its customers, Quick-Service and Fast Casual Restaurant Magazine found through a study by Coca-Cola that 42 percent of restaurants have adopted takeout food delivery services.

“Nowadays, I am ordering more meals than I did before COVID-19 because my parents do not want to spend all day cooking; it also supports restaurants during the pandemic,” Freshman Daisy Zeng said.

Along with the rise of takeout, third-party delivery apps including DoorDash, UberEats, Postmates and have grown in popularity. According to Restaurant Business, DoorDash’s sales rose 110 percent in five months, and DePaulia University reports in their newspaper that there was an increase of 55 percent in food orders placed through these apps during the pandemic. Moreover, nearly 63 percent of young adults have ordered through delivery apps in the past 90 days.

“I have been using DoorDash more frequently—about once every two months—during the pandemic because it is a safe way for my family to order food for special occasions such as birthdays and anniversaries,” Freshman Lia Yereslove said.

However, takeout meals, especially fast food, are generally unhealthier than home-cooked meals. SFGate states that fast foods often have large quantities of fat, sugar and sodium while not containing enough potassium, vitamins or minerals. The growing number of takeout orders signifies a potential harm in changed eating habits during the pandemic—children and young adults may be more susceptible to health disorders including diabetes, obesity, depression and cardiological issues. Dr. Walter C. Willett from Harvard University theorizes that the pandemic’s effects on peoples’ diets may also be increasing death rates because several diet-related conditions can put people at a higher hospitalization risk for COVID-19.

...the often nutrient-lacking meals that many are turning to during the pandemic lead to fatigue during school and daily activities, poor mental health and heightened health concerns.

Even before the pandemic, rates for fast food and takeout consumption have been rising among adolescents. A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that from 2015 to 2018, teenagers obtained 13.8 percent of their daily calories from convenience foods, a 12.4 percent increase from previous years. National Broadcasting Company attests that the pandemic likely exacerbated the problem of unhealthy eating among students. Moreover, the often nutrient-lacking meals that many are turning to during the pandemic lead to fatigue during school and daily activities, poor mental health and heightened health concerns.

Despite the fact that takeout foods and delivery services are likely to remain a popular option, an Herbalife Nutrition survey found that among those who reported a dietary change during the pandemic, 54 percent ate more fruit and vegetables, while 43 percent reduced meat consumption. Additionally, Forbes found that people began cooking more often during the pandemic, which can largely benefit their health. The International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity proved that people who eat more home-cooked meals often consume greater amounts of fruits and vegetables, which have higher Vitamin C levels and help to lower blood pressure.

“The lockdown has given me an opportunity to practice controlling my sugar intake, and I have started eating more fruits as snacks. These new habits have also made me feel much more energetic,” Freshman Nicole Furstenberg said.

Now that students mostly stay at home, they have the time and opportunity to eat various cultural foods, which also contribute to better health. For example, the Mediterranean diet, which centers around plant-based foods and limits the consumption of red meat and sweet foods, helps increase lifespan and decrease the risk of cancer and heart disease, as stated by Food Network. East Asian diets mostly consist of nutritious ingredients such as vegetable oils, fruit and legumes. This has been connected to the relative infrequency of heart disease, obesity and cancer in Eastern Asia.

“My family has started cooking more meals during the pandemic, and this has allowed us to explore new kinds of food. While we frequently ate Chinese food before the pandemic, we started eating more international cuisines like Mediterranean during the lockdown,” Junior Conner Shih said.

When in-person learning was in session, school events and activities largely contributed to students’ eating habits. Clubs often held fundraisers, where fast foods, such as churros, hamburgers, fries, bubble tea and doughnuts, were sold. Students bought school breakfast and lunch foods including cereal and pizza, and went to nearby stores like CVS and T4 after school to purchase drinks and snacks, all of which further contributed to an unhealthy diet if indulged regularly.

While many students often choose to eat these unhealthy foods, the school does offer nutritional alternatives. Several fruits and vegetables are offered in the cafeteria for students to add on to their meals.

“Prior to the pandemic, I would go to T4 with my friends every day after school to drink bubble tea, which was not very healthy. Over quarantine, I decided to eat healthier and I have noticed that I am more energized during the day,” Sophomore Tammy Newman said.

Newman states that she has started to pay more attention to her diet and prepares healthier meals. She now spends a lot of her time in the kitchen cooking and considers it her new hobby.

...many people have been craving and eating snacks high in carbohydrates.

However, in a Forbes survey regarding food consumption during the pandemic, 32 percent of people stated that they began eating snacks more often because they had increased free time, were bored or wanted to relieve stress. During distance learning, students now have longer 15-minute breaks between classes. Thus, some students have found themselves eating more snacks during school time.

In general, many people have been craving and eating snacks high in carbohydrates. The Boston Globe reports that scientists have linked this to the release of cortisol—the stress hormone—in uncertain situations, including the pandemic. According to a study by researchers at Harvard Medical School and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 55 percent of respondents felt an increase in stress in May compared to January. Comfort foods that many individuals have eaten to deal with stress and anxiety during the pandemic typically contain nostalgic or sentimental value and have high amounts of sugar. Although sweets initiate the release of dopamine—the happiness hormone—they could also lead to health issues like diabetes, inflammation, fatty liver and heart disease, which numerous American teens are already at high risk of because of their detrimental eating habits.

Dietary consultants are not particularly worried about those who have fell prey to unhealthier cravings. While they applaud those who have improved their eating habits, they also reassure that having an abnormal lifestyle during the pandemic is not an irregular occurrence.

Nicole Kim Art


About the Contributors

Keirah Chen

Staff Writer

Keirah Chen is a sophomore at Leland high school and is a staff writer. She likes going places with friends and watching horror movies.

Breanna Lu

Staff Writer

Breanna Lu is a freshman and a new staff writer. She enjoys binge watching sci-fi movies and her favorite book genre is murder mysteries/crime fiction. In her free time, you will most likely find her asleep or chatting with her friends.

Norah Shen

Staff Writer

Norah Shen is a freshman at Leland High School and is a new staff writer. She likes to read, listen to music, and relentlessly tease her younger sister.

Manasa Sriraj

Staff Writer

Manasa Sriraj is a freshman at Leland High School and a staff writer. She is a STEM, puzzle, and geography freak and loves torturing her friends by spamming and "Rickrolling" on group chats. Her hobbies include listening to music, playing basketball and the guitar, experimenting with snack recipes (which usually result in messes), and building Rube Goldberg machines and gadgets out of Legos and other regular household objects.

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