The research also revealed Lebanese adults were consuming more homemade meals, and eating more meals throughout the day during the pandemic.
Lebanon entered its first lockdown in March 2020, which was extended to May 2020.
In this study published in Frontiers in Nutrition, researchers from UAE, UK, Lebanon, Jordan and Australia wanted to understand the impact of the lockdown on eating habits, in the country with an already unstable economic and political situation.
One of the major concerns in Lebanon during the COVID-19 pandemic is malnutrition and food security.
At the community level, access to food was limited to less expensive items like canned food and ultra-processed foods rich in fat, sodium, and sugar, compared to fresh fruits and produce, which tend to cost more.
An online questionnaire was developed, reviewed, and piloted by a group of scientists at the University of Sharjah, and the United Arab Emirates University.
Questions were adapted from the Short Food Frequency Questionnaire, the International Physical Activity Questionnaire Short Form, and the second version of the Copenhagen Psychosocial Questionnaire (COPSOQ-II).
The questionnaire collected information on demographic, body weight, consumption habits, food shopping habits, physical activity, stress and sleep, comparing before the pandemic and during the pandemic.
The survey was conducted in June 2020, involving 2,500 adults above 18 years old, residing in the six governorates in Lebanon (Beirut, Mount Lebanon, North, South, Nabatiyeh, and Beqaa).
About half the participants (56.2%) were found to be working or studying from home during the lockdown.
The results of dietary habits revealed there was a significant increase in people consuming five or more meals per day, from 4.9% pre-pandemic, to 12.3% during the pandemic (p<0.001).
Researchers suggest that the increased time spent at home may provoke additional eating, along with insufficient sleep, frequent snacking, lack of dietary restraint, emotional eating, and reduced physical activity.
There was a significant increase in participants eating mostly homemade meals during the pandemic (95.5%) compared to pre-pandemic (83.3%) (p<0.001).
Data also revealed higher intake of sweets and salty snacks. A total of 28% reported consuming sweets or desserts at least once per day and 30.9% consumed salty snacks (nuts, crackers, chips) every day.
According to researchers, these energy-dense yet palatable foods are rich in unhealthy saturated fats, trans fats, and added sugars, could be linked to emotional eating where people tend to consume such foods as a coping mechanism to regulate pandemic related negative emotions, such as depression, anxiety, and stress.
Beverage-wise, it was found that 24.7% of participants drank sweetened beverages at least once daily, and 60.7% drank coffee or tea at least once per day.
However, adequate intake of eight cups of water daily seemed to reduce from 78.3% before the pandemic, to 72.9% during the pandemic.
In addition, 44.7% and 35.3% of participants did not eat fruits and vegetables daily respectively.
This reduction can be attributed to a significant increase in the prices of fruits and vegetables, which have soared more than 160% and 50% respectively.
Shopping habits and source of information
Compared to most other Middle Eastern countries where people are increasingly ordering groceries online for convenience and to stay safe, online shopping is less common in Lebanon with only 28.8% of people doing so.
In UAE, about 40% of people shop online for groceries.
In terms of where consumers get their source of health and nutrition information, most people turn to social media platforms (65.4%) followed by healthcare professionals (45.2%).
Only 36.6% and 27.7% of participants selected local and international health authorities as a source of information respectively.
From these results, this study highlighted that the COVID-19 lockdown was associated with unfavourable changes in dietary habits among Lebanese adults.
In a recent survey conducted in Japan, results indicated higher consumption of alcohol, snacks and more frequent meals, although they were also eating more fruits and vegetables during the pandemic.
From the current results, researchers see a shift in Lebanon’s food consumption away from the traditional cuisine also known as the Mediterranean diet, which relies heavily on legumes, cereals, fruits, nuts and olive oil.
“Our results highlight the pressing need for public interventions to combat and prevent nutrients deficiencies, through reverting traditional cuisine, encouraging home plantation and good food choices.”
Source: Frontiers in Nutrition
“Dietary Habits and Lifestyle During Coronavirus Pandemic Lockdown: Experience From Lebanon”
Authors: Leila Cheikh Ismail, et al.