Dark Side of the Egg

Homework: A Natural Experiment in Lifestyle Changes

Eggs for Working from HomeWe have a grand natural experiment underway – a huge lifestyle intervention. Suddenly, hundreds of millions of people are living a more confined lifestyle. We have no more third place, no commute to work, only the home place. So physical activity and nutrition patterns will change. Likewise, social dynamics will change, too.

But we have no way of knowing what the effects will be. Because prior research really doesn’t address the changes we’re facing

Impact on Nutrition

Until now, the assumption has been that home-cooked meals provide better nutrition than food consumed away from home. But what will the reality be at home when we don’t have the indulgence of our favorite coffee shop, fast food stop, or restaurant meal? Right now, all we have are anecdotes, suppositions, and lots healthy eating advice. Of course, you can find qualitative insights by browsing through Twitter and Instagram.

Though there’s plenty we don’t know, we do know enough to expect is a bit of stress eating. Cadbury eggs, anyone? In addition, it is clear that social interactions can exert a powerful influence on eating behaviors. Thus, we know to expect change. We just don’t know what those changes will be.

Stress and Mental Health

One thing is very clear. We can expect that these new patterns for life will be stressful and will have big implications for mental health. During the SARS outbreak, 29 percent of people under quarantine showed signs of PTSD. Following isolation, 31 percent had symptoms of depression. The researcher who produced these data, Rima Styra, told Quartz:

Our study really pointed to the importance of reliable, consistent information and updates so that people can understand what we know, what we don’t know, and how we are trying to close this gap.

If you’re following the coronavirus news, you might have guessed that the flow of information doesn’t seem terribly reliable. Just getting tested has been very difficult, so we don’t even know the true dimensions of this situation. On top of that, we face considerable economic uncertainty. The challenges multiply.

One effect we might see is a surge in divorce rates. One city in China is reporting a very unusual surge in divorces – so many that the government can’t process them all.

Physical Activity

Will this dimension of our behavioral health improve or suffer? On one hand, many gyms are closed. On the other, people may spend less time driving and have more time for things like walking, gardening, and work around the home that requires some physical exertion. Whatever the net effect is, we would do well to take advantage of these opportunities. Physical activity is important for releasing stress.

In sum, we can be sure to see profound changes in behaviors with an effect on health. Though they are surely unpredictable, they do present us with a big natural experiment in lifestyle changes. They also will present significant challenges for mental health.

Thoughtful people in health and healthcare must rise to the challenge, and all of us will have to adapt.

Click here, here, and here for more on the mental health implications of the coronavirus pandemic. For insights on dealing with relationships in a time of quarantine, click here. Finally, for advice on nutrition for these times, we recommend this and this.

Dark Side of the Egg, photograph © Holland / flickr

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March 19, 2020