According to a recent survey conducted by the International Food Information Council (IFIC), consumers consider health professionals and registered dietitian nutritionists the top trusted sources of information about which foods to eat and avoid during the ongoing COVID- global crisis. Consumers are also changing their food purchasing behaviors and evaluating food choices with a more healthful lens.

We recently connected with three dietitians following unique career paths within the global nutrition and dietetics industry – Maeve Hanan, RD of Dietetically Speaking; Marissa Thiry, MS, RD of Taco Bell; and Samantha Cassetty, MS, RD of Samantha Cassetty Nutrition & Wellness, LLC – to hear how COVID-19 has impacted their work as dietitians, shifts they are seeing in consumers’ needs and their thoughts on where the nutrition profession will go from here.

Maeve: The biggest change for me has been moving all of my in-person nutrition clients over to telehealth consultations. This took a bit of work in the beginning, but it is luckily all running smoothly now. Due to the sudden need for nutrition professionals to work from home, I also fast-tracked a project I had been planning to launch called Nutrimote (nutrimote.com and the Nutrimote group on Facebook) — this is a hub of information and support for remote nutrition professionals or those who want to work remotely. Other parts of my work haven’t changed, as I was already working on nutrition consultancy projects, creating social media content and writing a short book from home.

Marissa: Like many others, COVID-19 has brought new opportunities to work from home in a creative way. As a product developer, it has been an interesting and exciting challenge to develop menu items from my own kitchen, rather than the Taco Bell Test Kitchen. This has resulted in many trips through the drive-thru for different ingredients or menu items and lots of samples shipped to my home. It’s been a fun change of pace and brought new waves of creativity to light! The demands of the business have shifted as well, which has presented new work streams for our Global Nutrition & Sustainability Team around topics such as food insecurity and donations. It has been eye-opening to be exposed to this side of nutrition and I’m grateful for the opportunity to help those experiencing food insecurity right now.

Samantha: The scope of my work—advising brands and representing them with the media, writing for TODAY.com and an upcoming book, leading corporate workshops, and seeing clients virtually—hasn’t changed at all, but the focus has changed on many fronts. People’s eating and lifestyle habits have shifted so most of my content addresses this in some fashion. Another big change I’ve seen is how brands have met this moment. They need to be sensitive to this climate and that’s meant a shift in outreach or messaging. Plus, with all the changes in work environments, certain traditional outreach methods, such as media desk sides and events, have had to move to virtual settings. Since this is such a novel situation, it’s important to be able to pivot as new information and new mandates come out.

 

Have your communications with the consumers you work with changed? Also, have you noticed a change in the topics consumers are most interested in right now?

Maeve: I am now mainly communicating with clients via email, phone call or video call, whereas I used to see some of my clients face to face. For those who need additional support related to eating disorder recovery, I have also started using an app called Recovery Record as an extra way to support these clients remotely in-between telehealth appointments. The topics we discuss have been impacted by the pandemic, for example, discussions related to food availability, alcohol intake and emotional eating have been more prominent.

Marissa: With conferences and other networking events cancelled for the foreseeable future, we’ve been thinking creatively about how best to communicate with our nutrition stakeholder network, the Food for All Fam. That’s why a couple months ago, we launched a Zoom mini series, Take 20 with Taco Bell, as an opportunity for engagement with our members while we’re all spending a bit more time at home. Each 20-minute episode features a member of the network or a Taco Bell employee showcasing a unique skill, or chatting about a relevant topic for the group. It has introduced us to virtual networking and become a welcomed bit of socializing during the week while social distancing is in place.

We’ve also noticed a shift in consumer priorities. Consumers are focusing on value products and comfort food more than ever, but most importantly, they want to know that their food is safe. We have shifted our marketing to meet people where they are at and focus on communicating how we are delivering safe and delicious food during this time. We will always be an innovative brand, but what consumers want right now is comfort and safety at a value.

Samantha: There’s been a definite shift in the topics consumers are interested in. For the most part, people want to know how to fend off illness, whether that’s eating better to bolster the immune system or to reduce the risk of chronic diseases that make serious illness from COVID-19 more likely. People are cooking more and eating more processed foods, so I’m addressing these types of scenarios in my columns. These are just a few examples, but right now, most of the content that people are searching for relates to COVID-19. Prior to COVID-19, a fun article might’ve focused on the healthiest foods to buy at Trader Joe’s, but now, people are struggling on so many levels that I’m really trying to help them get through this situation as healthfully and sanely as possible.

 

What do see as being the long-term impacts of COVID-19 for the nutrition profession?

Maeve: I think a lot of nutrition professionals now feel more comfortable with providing telehealth services and accessing online CPD resources. Similarly, there may be increased opportunities for nutrition professionals to work remotely.

Marissa: While COVID-19 may have forced an expedited adoption of some technology, like telehealth, virtual networking, and contactless ordering and pickup, I think digital advancements will certainly be here for the long haul. When the stay at home orders are lifted we can expect to see some things return to the ‘old ways’, but technology advancements that took place likely won’t be one of them. As a nutrition professional, staying abreast of the latest technology and how consumers are using it is vital. It’s so much more than social media now. Technology is rapidly becoming integrated into the entire food system, business and healthcare sectors, and nutrition landscape across the board.  Understanding how to navigate restaurant and wellness mobile apps, telehealth platforms, and zoom meetings, both from a consumer and practitioner perspective, is more important than ever. And before you get too overwhelmed with the idea of tackling all technology has to offer – take a deep breath! I’m not suggesting that everyone needs to learn HTML basics or start a virtual private practice. But, I am suggesting that you order your next meal from an app and give contactless payment and delivery a try. Set up a zoom call with family if you haven’t already and upload a new background. Familiarize yourself with technology by using it first-hand, if only for a trial run.

I also think that we’ll see more of an emphasis on overall wellness coming out of COVID-19. While it’s still a bit unclear what that means (good night sleep, eating more plant-based, connecting with friends and family more frequently, exercising regularly, etc.), I do think there will be an appetite for maintaining a level of wellness and balance returning to the ‘new normal’. Many people have had the opportunity to focus on wellness more during the stay at home orders, and others may be wishing they had more of an opportunity to do so. While comfort food certainly is front and center right now, I think holistic wellness and mindful choices may be more prevalent long-term.

Samantha: About 80% of health problems in this country stem from an unhealthy diet and COVID-19 has brought to light the fact these problems worsen health outcomes. As nutrition professionals, we have a huge role to play in helping people offset these problems by adopting healthier eating habits. I’m hoping that as we move through different stages of this crisis, that ultimately nutrition becomes part of the conversation of how to protect ourselves. There have also been changes to people’s eating patterns, both for better and worse. People are cooking more, but also eating more processed foods and less healthful comfort foods. I’d expect some quarantine habits to continue for a while. Making your own bread might not be sustainable for the long-haul, but if you’ve traded down to a generic brand, for instance, that will probably stick.

 

What positives have come to light during this situation?

Maeve: Beyond nutrition specifically, some of the environmental benefits related to reduced emissions are really positive to see. It has also been lovely to see how many people have been volunteering and doing what they can to help others during this difficult time. I have also seen a lot of people benefit in terms of their work-life balance now that they don’t have to commute or travel for work. Another positive has been the new perspective we have gained, so I hope we will really appreciate things like being able to meet up with friends, hugs and going for a meal (etc.) once the situation has improved. As discussed above, I hope this will lead to more opportunities for remote and flexible working in the longer-term.  

Marissa: A silver lining through all of this is certainly that people are enjoying more family meals. We’ve noticed that when people come through our drive-thru, they are ordering multiple menu items for larger groups, rather than grabbing something for themselves between meetings. There has also been some really fun ways that brands are interacting with consumers to help facilitate those family meals. Right before Cinco de Mayo, we launched our At Home Taco Bar, which included all the ingredients to make Taco Bell tacos and nachos at home for up to six people. We want to encourage togetherness where it makes sense, but in a safe and fun way.

Samantha: I love the creativity that has come out of this pandemic. I’m also a fan of slowing down and remembering that our health and the health of our loved ones are really the most important things!