Trends show people started taking their health and what they are eating more seriously during the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in more reliance on food delivery apps, grocery pick-up options, and an increased interest in cooking or learning how to cook while at home.

The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting the way we eat – what we eat, how we’re eating it, where we dine, and where we get our food – and it might not be in the negative way that people may assume. According to Food Insight, just under 40 percent of people are eating at least somewhat healthier compared to pre-COVID.

Dr. Kasey Nichols, a naturopathic doctor and president of the Arizona Naturopathic Medical Association (AZNMA), said this was from a combination of various factors, such as not being able to eat at certain restaurants that have shut down or worked from home, forcing many to cook more at home.

“We do know that more people are cooking at home and that they’re more conscious about the foods that they are eating,” Nichols said.

People are also seeking more responsibly-grown food, as well as immune-boosting foods, such as greens, citrus fruits, certain spices, and others. People are more concerned with using food as fuel to fight off sickness, which makes sense given the pandemic.

Trends pre-COVID showed that people were already becoming more conscious of their health and diets, and since the pandemic, it has become even more common.

“With a pandemic, with the CDC saying you need to eat a healthy diet, with more people having more time to look up what a healthy diet is… when they actually start focusing on eating more healthy foods you’re going to see bigger changes like we’re seeing,” Nichols said.

More people are participating in specific diets, such as intermittent fasting, high-fat and keto, and eating more plant-based alternatives in their meals. Nichols said he has seen this trend in his own practice.

Nichols’ unofficial hypothesis is that being home for more time is making people more conscious and aware of what they’re eating – and they aren’t happy with it anymore. “Then couple that with the media’s attention to eating a healthy diet to boost your immune system and that’s, I think, why we’re seeing some of the trends we’re seeing with eating more healthy,” he said.

All of this being said – many of us haven’t changed the way we eat or haven’t been able to. Where do we start?

Dr. Nichols said he sees health as surrounding four “pillars” – diet, exercise, sleep, and stress management. All four are important and play into one another, and finding a balance between all of them so that a deficit in one area won’t sabotage progress in another.

“All of these go hand in hand,” he said. “One will play into the other very easily. If you have increased stress, you’re going to eat more simple carbohydrates, you’re going to feed that system. If you missed sleep, you’re going to have increased stress which will increase the simple carbohydrates. If you eat a bad diet, it’s going to increase stress. They’re all interconnected.”

He said a good first step is to balance out your diet – such as having a piece of meat the size of your palm and filling the rest of the plate with non-starchy, leafy, or dense vegetables.

It is also important to get 30 minutes to an hour of exercise three to five days a week, but Nichols said that it’s okay to start small.

“Often as human beings, we go full bore into exercise programs… and then what happens is you become overwhelmingly sore, and it negatively reinforces you going back to the gym again,” Nichols said.

What he recommends instead is to “build up small wins.” Starting with a walk, jog, or simple exercises is a great place to start, and then you can increase the frequency and challenge of the workouts as you get into a routine.

Nichols said he has seen many people in his own clinical experience who struggle with depression and anxiety also have unhealthy diets. He has seen people start to feel much better once they start taking care of themselves by paying more attention to their diet and putting effort into exercise.

Nichols said the question is whether or not many of these changes in eating during the pandemic will be maintained in the long-run and potentially post-COVID. America was already in a health crisis before COVID concerning obesity and being overweight. According to the CDC, 39.8 percent of adults in America are obese, and 71.6 percent are overweight, including the obese.

“Any push that we can have toward more healthy diets, more plant-based diet or more of an emphasis on plants than the simple carbohydrates and processed foods – they’re going to have long term repercussions in the health of Americans and the health of Arizona and in general,” Nichols said.