Fast Food at the Munich Hauptbahnhof

Food Cues After the COVID Pandemic

Tamar Haspel tells a positively appealing story in the Washington Post this week. We don’t have a problem with obesity because of carbs, she writes. Nor fats, nor processed foods. The problem is the food environment. Cheap, convenient food surrounds us, with endless prompts to eat it. All these food cues, coaxing us to eat anywhere and everywhere, have been wiped away by the COVID pandemic.

The old normal is gone. Does this mean we have a unique opportunity to create a new food environment that will be better for us?

Stimulus Control

We instinctively resist happy, simple solutions to the complex challenges of obesity. But as usual, the story that Haspel is telling makes a certain amount of sense. A new paper on stimulus control, eating behaviors, and BMI supports some of her logic.

Stefania Franja and colleagues from the University of Tasmania studied the eating behaviors of 74 individuals divided into high and low BMI groups. They found that eating cues seemed to have a greater effect on eating behaviors in high BMI individuals, compared to subjects in a healthy weight range. The cues included food availability, personal affect, time of day, and location. The presence of food outlets was especially predictive of eating behaviors.

The bottom line is that our food environment matters and it is changing radically because of the pandemic. Eating and cooking habits have changed overnight. Food cues have been scrambled by the COVID pandemic.

The Possibility of Positive Change

Haspel is optimistic about the possibilities for change:

We are the fabric. We are the community. We can all play a part. Employers, have you asked your workforce what they would like, food-wise? A 2019 U.K. study found that 95 percent of people don’t want office cake more than once a week. Likewise, Little League, maybe talk to parents about snacking, or not, after games. Retailers, do you really want parents with kids to have to run the candy gauntlet at checkout? Restaurateurs, would you consider half-portions of entrees?

When it’s safe to venture back in the world, we’ll get to decide what kind of world we want it to be. Normal is what we make it, so let’s make it better.

Huntington, WV, is an example of a community that has been working on such positive changes for more than ten years now. Haspel calls the results “jaw dropping,” but we are a bit more cautious in our assessment. Nonetheless, it’s a case study for positive changes.

We don’t need miracle makeovers. All we need is to pull together to make the most of the opportunities before us. We can, at the grass roots, claim a healthier food environment for ourselves and our communities.

Click here for Haspel’s commentary and here for the Franja study.

Fast Food at the Munich Hauptbahnhof, photograph © Matthias Ripp / flickr

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June 23, 2020

One Response to “Food Cues After the COVID Pandemic”

  1. June 23, 2020 at 10:38 am, Mary-Jo said:

    I agree wholeheartedly with the unique Covid exposing opportunity to change our food environment that enables eating non-stop a mindless ‘normal’ response to it. But, I also think that we have an equally important obligation to now improve access to care for people with obesity and/or at high risk. The fact is, the prevalence of obesity is now so high that those of us with obese bodies have an inordinate, almost normal need to seek food led as much by our physiology as by the environment. If we could get better access to help — medical, psychological, mental, physiological — For more correct assessment and then, continued follow-up for as long as we need it, it would be that much more successful along with overhauling the food environment.