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Investigating the Covid-19 pandemic on dietary behaviour in Scotland and accompanying health and well-being impacts

Investigating the Covid-19 pandemic on dietary behaviour in Scotland and accompanying health and well-being impacts

  • Human Nutrition
  • 2022-2027
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The health behaviour of people living in Scotland, in terms of the types of food bought, the amount of alcohol consumed and the amount of physical activity done, is subject to many influences, and the COVID-19 pandemic may have affected these behaviours. Early in the pandemic, Public Health Scotland stated: “Research to track changes in physical activity, diet and weight as COVID-19 control measures ease in the form of high-quality, longitudinal studies within the Scottish population using validated tools would be important to inform the development and targeting of policy in light of the COVID-19 outbreak. It is key that these studies are representative with respect to demographic characteristics.”  Whilst studies are available to track such changes, most notably from Food Standards Scotland (FSS) via consumer tracking surveys, there is limited evidence on longer-term changes, and how different parts of the population were affected relative to others. In addition, whilst the effects of the pandemic on mental health are now well-known, the link with health behaviours is not as well established, either in Scotland or other parts of the UK. For these reasons, this project aimed to assess how the COVID-19 pandemic changed diets in Scotland, and whether there were any marked impacts on health and well-being. The findings aim to inform current and future policies that seek to change health behaviour within Scotland and the rest of the UK, particularly in relation to proposals on healthy diets being taken forward by the Scottish Government.


  • How has the Covid-19 pandemic changed diets in Scotland, and what have been the impacts of that on the health of the people of Scotland?


This project examines the impact of COVID-19 on dietary behaviour in Scotland using longitudinal data. We focus on changes in individuals’ dietary behaviour (and accompanying impacts on mental health and life satisfaction) in comparison to pre-pandemic conditions and include several other observable characteristics in individuals’ lives, to control for changes in other important dimensions of individuals' lives. 

Specifically, this project aims to:

  • Quantify the change in dietary behaviour amongst adults aged 16 years of age or over in Scotland following the implementation of COVID-19 pandemic lockdown measures
  • Understand the magnitude of accompanying changes in mental health and life satisfaction amongst those who reported changes in dietary behaviour
  • Estimate the extent of differential impacts between different individuals and households in terms of socio-economic characteristics
  • Calculate the implied monetary values associated with the changes in dietary behaviour and mental health

The project provides up-to-date evidence from a large nationally representative survey of the Scottish population regarding whether dietary behaviour has changed following the COVID-19 lockdown measures. In particular, whether changes were concentrated amongst particular socio-economic groups, and whether any changes have remained stable over time. 

Project Partners

University of Aberdeen
The Rowett Institute


2022 / 2023
2022 / 2023

To address the Research Aims, the project used an existing UK wide dataset, the UK Household Longitudinal Study (UKHLS-Understanding Society). This is a repeated survey of thousands of households in Scotland and the rest of the UK.  Analysis focused on data collected between 2015-2021.  Key variables included fruits & vegetables intake, alcohol consumption, physical activity levels, and mental health, measured by the General Household Questionnaire (GHQ)-12a clinically validated tool to detect psychological distress.


We found that:


  • The COVID-19 pandemic period was associated with a larger reduction in healthy behaviour amongst women more than men.
  • Before the pandemic, a healthier lifestyle was associated with better mental health amongst women and men.
  • After the start of the pandemic, the association between better mental health and healthier lifestyle disappeared amongst women, but not amongst men.
  • The findings were robust across different specifications and models estimated on data from the COVID-19 surveys as well as the main UK-HLS datasets.


Policy Implications

The implications of our findings for policy will depend on whether the effects that we observe persist. The cost of living crisis could potentially worsen health behaviours among women who tend to earn less income and work in precarious jobs (Office for National Statistics 2022). Public health implications could be severe if these changes persist and/or worsen. Importantly, policies need to consider and prioritise individuals who might be vulnerable to sustained unhealthy behaviours.  A further project using more recent data would provide an opportunity to assess the extent to which our main findings continue to hold, helping therefore to inform policy in relation to cost of living pressures. 

This project was completed on the 24th of July 2023. The end of project report can be found here



What effect did the COVID-19 Pandemic have on Scotland’s dietary behaviour, and what will be the impact on health & well-being? 


Conference abstracts

Arulsamy K McNamee P, Mendolia. The gendered nature of the COVID Pandemic on health behaviours. Health Economists’ Study Group Conference. University of Oxford. June 2023.


Arulsamy K McNamee P, Mendolia. The gendered impact of COVID-19 on health behaviours: evidence from the UK. Understanding Society Annual Conference. University of Essex. July 2023.

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