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Far more screen time, sweets and cake during first lockdown

Food, fish and agriculture Nutrition and dietary habits

The corona lockdown in the spring of 2020 led Danes to adopt more unhealthy habits in the form of more screen time and higher intake of sweets.

During the corona lockdown in the spring of 2020, adult Danes’ diet contained on average 40% more sweets and significantly more sweetened drinks when compared with figures from the most recent Danish National Survey of Diet and Physical Activity (DANSDA). During the lockdown, adult Danes also spent significantly more hours of their leisure time in front of a screen.

These are some of the significant findings from a study conducted by the National Food Institute, Technical University of Denmark. The study participants’ self-experienced eating and physical activity habits back up the results: During the spring of 2020, 23% of participants experienced that they ate more than usual, 21% experienced that they ate more sweets and chocolate, and 14% ate more cake than usual.

Data from the supermarket chain COOP also back up the results: The sale of sweets and soft drinks as well as key ingredients for cake baking (such as flour and sugar) was significantly higher in March and April 2020 compared with the same period the previous year.

Social differences are more pronounced

The National Food Institute researchers have also looked at the participants' eating and physical activity habits in relation to their work situation during the lockdown. The group that worked from home had a healthier diet than the group whose work situation remained the same.

The group that worked from home were younger with a higher level of education and a high household income. The group whose work situation remained the same, on the other hand, included more adults with a lower level of education and a lower household income.

There are big differences in the dietary quality between those who have eaten the least and the most healthy diets during the lockdown. The least healthy diet contained e.g. 85% more sweets and snacks, and 60% less wholegrains compared with the healthiest diet. This corresponds to theast healthy diet containing an additional 13 kilos of sweets and snacks per year compared with the healthiest diet.

Furthermore, the group with the least healthy diet ate almost 2 MJ more per day than the group with the healthiest diet. Both the level of education and household income are significantly lower in the group that ate the least healthy diet compared with the group that ate the healthiest diet. 

”In many ways, the results from the Danish Corona Dietary Survey are in line with the results from other large national surveys. However, we have identified even greater social differences in the dietary content of sweets and snacks between those with the least healthy and the healthiest diets in the present survey. So the lockdown has possibly exacerbated the social differences in dietary habits,” senior researcher and head of research group Anja Pia Biltoft-Jensen says.

Significantly more screen time and less physical activity

The study also shows a significant increase in screen time and a decrease in time spent engaging in moderate and vigorous physical activity compared with previous national surveys. More than four out of 10 participants reported very high leisure screen time, which corresponds to spending more than six hours of their daily leisure time sedentary in front of a TV or computer screen. In comparison, only one in 10 adult Danes reported such high leisure screen time in the most recent DANSDA.

Almost every other participant (46%) believes they have been less active during the lockdown. 21% were classified as being sedentary during their leisure time, which means that in their leisure time they were both physically inactive and have had more than six hours daily screen time. That is approximately a fivefold increase compared to the most recent DANSDA.

People are classified as physically inactive if they fail to meet the physical activity recommendations for moderate to vigorous physical activity.

Concerning physical activity, people that spent the greatest amount of leisure time being sedentary behind a screen belonged to the group that was sent home (without having to work) and the group that was not in paid employment. These groups are characterized by a larger proportion of people who are outside the labour market as well as people with a low household income.

“The study has revealed significant changes in Danes' physical activity patterns. Never before have I seen data that show so many adult Danes having as much sedentary leisure screen time as was the case during the first lockdown,” senior adviser Jeppe Matthiessen from the National Food Institute says.

Overall, the researchers believe the study makes a strong case for future initiatives aimed at promoting healthier diet and physical activity habits having a special focus on the group with a lower level of education and low household incomes.

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The National Food Institute’s Danish Corona Dietary Survey is the first Danish study that has measured the whole diet as well as physical activity for the same group of people. The data collection took place in March-April 2020 during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. The analysis includes data from 1,226 Danes aged 18-65 who resemble the background population.

Results are described in more detail in an e-article from the National Food Institute: Voksne danskeres kost- og aktivitetsvaner under den første nationale COVID-19 nedlukning i foråret 2020 (available in Danish only) and the fact sheet Facts on Danish adults’ dietary and physical activity habits during the first national COVID-19 lockdown in the spring of 2020

The study was repeated in September 2020 during a time when Denmark was subject to far fewer restrictions than in the spring and where daily life for many was less restricted. The National Food Institute is currently analyzing data from that period with the purpose of comparing diet and physical activity during the two periods. The results of this work will be published in a scientific article.