Food Habits and Behaviours

Over the last 18 months, most of us have probably made either small changes or big changes to the way we shop or eat. From ordering online, to bulk buying, to splurging on luxuries to cheer ourselves up, to having to dramatically reduce our food budget, to an increasing reliance on takeaways, all of these behaviour changes require analysis and understanding.

Our work is focused on forming this understanding. By identifying food and eating trends, behaviour changes and habits within communities, the University and its partners are well placed to identify future societal challenges around food, health and wellbeing, whilst also helping health authorities and industry capitalise and build upon positive behaviours.

Our combined passion for understanding behaviour change and the impact that food inequality has on people's lives means we are always looking ahead. We believe we have an important role to play in building a better future for our nation's communities.

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Restrictions, lockdowns and food shopping

Restrictions, lockdowns and food shopping

How has the pandemic affected local food systems on the ground and impacted people’s food shopping habits in the East of England?

Restrictions, lockdowns and food shopping

During the pandemic, everyone was talking about food shopping. In many countries, including the UK, the only retail outlets open during some of the lockdowns were supermarkets. Scenes of panic buying, empty supermarket shelves and scrambles for online delivery slots flooded the news and social media. Prices for some items began to soar as demand outstripped supply.

The COVID-19 pandemic had arrived in the UK and it initially had a major impact on people’s ability to access food, particularly among vulnerable groups.

We wanted to understand how the pandemic was affecting local food systems on the ground and impacted people’s food shopping habits so we conducted an in-depth study with a wide range of households, dietary health volunteers and professionals in the East of England between May 2020 and March 2021. Prior to the pandemic, the number of grocery stores opening up across the UK doubled in 2020, with the biggest increase in the East of England.

We found that many people, particularly older people, didn’t have the usual agency associated with food: they missed the social interaction that comes with food shopping, were relying on friends and family doing food shopping for them and consequently we found some people had suppressed appetites and had lost interest in food and eating.

The initial impacts on access to food also amplified disparities between people’s access to food: for the financially secure it was a trigger to source better quality food at the local farm shop for example, but some people with local incomes were left at the mercy of inflated prices at local shops.

The pandemic also created access issues for many people; while supermarkets offered priority delivery slots to shielders and older people, many people were still unable to secure deliveries. Social distancing restrictions created difficulties for carers and single parents with dependent children because they could not take the people they cared for shopping with them and were unable to get help with care so they could go food shopping alone.

The past year has highlighted that, even without the circumstances created by the pandemic, supermarkets and food shops need to be more accessible and supportive for people who have health and wellbeing needs.

Our recommendations to supermarkets include introducing more places for shoppers to sit down and rest in large supermarkets, ensuring toilet facilities are adequate, open and accessible, and offering assistance with shopping when stores are busy.

Find out more about Herts’ research and findings on behalf of the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Applied Research Collaboration East of England

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By Dr Claire Thompson, Dr Laura Hamilton and Dr Angela Dickinson, Centre for Research in Public Health and Community Care

How the pandemic impacted how we shop, cook and eat

How the pandemic impacted how we shop, cook and eat

The impact of COVID-19 has had positive and negative impacts on how consumers in the UK buy, cook and eat food.

How the pandemic impacted how we shop, cook and eat

The impact of COVID-19 has affected how consumers in the UK buy, cook and eat food. After the initial scenes of empty supermarket shelves and consumer stockpiling back in March 2020, the supply of food in supermarkets has remained steady throughout the pandemic and people’s trust in the food business has strengthened.

A study commissioned by the Food Standards Agency found many households have experienced positive changes to their patterns of food behaviour that they wished to continue as lockdown eased. There has been a rise in home-cooking, food sharing and increased attention on our diet.

For many people, the lockdowns and social restrictions have created more time to slow down and consider their eating habits; it’s created more time to spend shopping for healthier food, more time to cook at home and more time to share a meal around the table as a family. Pre-pandemic, lifestyles were more rushed, more meals wore bought for convenience and family meals together less frequent.

However, positive changes in food habits and behaviours have been far from clear-cut. A study by the European Institute of Innovation and Technology found there was a 33% increase in the consumption of fresh fruit and a 31% increase in the consumption of fresh vegetables in the UK in 2020, highlighting a marked increase in healthy eating. However, the study also highlighted how other food and drink habits had changed during the pandemic, with the study also revealing a 27% increase in snacking in the UK and the highest increase in consumption of alcohol and ‘treats’ in Europe amongst participants.

The Food Standards Agency COVID-19 consumer research also highlights that while public trust in food businesses in the UK has been strengthened during the course of the pandemic, people are also eager for “clear visual safety cues in shops, particularly clear social distancing”.

At Herts we have close relationships with major UK supermarket retailers and advise them on a range of issues, and particularly on the needs of older shoppers. Our research into the impact of the pandemic on older people’s access to and relationship with food, funded by the NIHR, identified that support is needed to restore confidence in food shopping amongst this age group in particular.

Going forwards, as more people return to work and busier lifestyles, Herts researchers across areas including Public Health, Dietetics and Psychology, will continue to monitor changing habits and conduct research into understanding these changing behaviours.

Find out more about our Centre for Research in Public Health and Community Care and Centre for Research in Psychology and Sport Sciences

Katie Newby headshotWendy Wills headshot

By Katie Newby, Associate Professor in Health Behaviour Change at the University of Hertfordshire and Professor Wendy Wills, Director of the Centre for Research in Public Health and Community Care

Key facts: shopping habits and behabiours

Key facts: shopping habits and behabiours

A year of change, a look back on how the pandemic affected our eating habits and behaviours.

Key facts: shopping habits and behabiours

Helping local authorities deliver public health programmes that are fit for the future

Helping local authorities deliver public health programmes that are fit for the future

How Herts is directly connecting local authorities with research experts to evaluate and provide guidance on public health initiatives.

Helping local authorities deliver public health programmes that are fit for the future

Herts is one of four academic research partners in the NIHR (National Institute Health Research) PHIRST programme (Public Health Intervention Responsive Studies Team). The programme directly connects local authorities with research experts to evaluate and provide guidance on public health initiatives that aim to improve people’s health in their local communities and to help reduce health inequalities in the UK.

There is a raft of innovative schemes to improve public health and reduce health inequalities across the UK, but local authorities often lack the resources and funding required for a full evaluation of the impact of their public health intervention programmes. This means there is limited proof of success of these initiatives, and this can hamper securing more funding for other non-NHS public health schemes.

By working in partnership with researchers, local authorities can gain insights and learnings about their public health schemes, enabling them to review and improve the delivery of services and ensure they are tailored to people’s needs. Researchers are teamed with projects across the UK that target a wide range of public health issues, from improving healthy eating to supporting recovery from drug and alcohol abuse.

A team from the University of Hertfordshire has been working with the Welsh Local Government Association to evaluate the impact of moving its National Exercise Referral Scheme online during the pandemic. The programme provides tailored, supervised sessions of physical activity for people aged over 16 who aren’t regularly physically active and are at risk of or currently experiencing a long term or chronic health condition, ranging from conditions such as back pain to an increased risk of diabetes to mental health conditions. Clients are referred to the programme by their GP or health professional.

However, as COVID-19 restrictions meant sports facilities and group exercise sessions had to largely remain closed for much of 2020, the programme pivoted to run its session online, delivering virtual exercise classes instead.

Our researchers are analysing the programme’s participant data to understand if more people benefitted from the ability to access exercise sessions online, at the click on a button from home, rather than having to attend classes in person. The team is looking at engagement data from pre-pandemic, during the pandemic and after restrictions had been lifted to determine if there’s strong demand for the sessions to continue being delivered online into the future. Do people in the programme want a return to group sessions in-person, or a hybrid approach that offers a mix of sessions online and offline.

Our researchers will provide recommendations around which format works best for ensuing clients join the exercise sessions, actively participate and ultimately gain the biggest benefit from the programme.

Find out more about our Centre for Research in Public Health and Community Care

Katie Newby headshot

By Katie Newby, Associate Professor in Health Behaviour Change

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