In 2021, Healthy Eating Will Be All About Reconnecting With Our Bodies and Our Values

All parts of wellness had a shake up this year—how we work out, what we eat, the products we put on our faces, the way we rest—and the reverberations of those changes will be felt into 2021 and beyond. Here's how the innovations born of this year will usher us into the future.

There are few places more representative of the change wrought by COVID-19 than the kitchen. A report from PwC found that 51 percent of Americans reported a “significant increase” in home cooking thanks to the pandemic. According to Maya Feller, RD, food has served as a form of comfort as COVID-19 cases rise and economic prospects remain uncertain at best. (Just look at the soaring popularity of homemade sourdough, banana bread, and even nostalgic packaged snacks since March.) And after a year of so much turmoil, our food choices in 2021 will be all about alignment—nutrition that aligns with our individual health needs, and food choices that align with values like sustainability and racial and economic equity.

In this new context, more people will realize that the restrictive dieting so commonplace in wellness no longer serves their physical or emotional well-being. Dietitian-influencers like Christy Harrison, RD, Shana Minei Spence, RDN, and Dalina Soto, RD, have long educated their hundred of thousands of followers that restriction leads to bingeing, psychologically damaging guilt and shame, and an increased risk of disordered eating—and 2020 yielded the fruits of that labor in the form of backlash to high-profile diet programs like F-Factor and All In By Teddi. In fact, data from the International Food Information Council Federation finds that 39 percent of Americans are newly interested in mindful or intuitive eating, practices that emphasize listening to your body and its needs when determining what and how to eat. “Mindfulness has been bubbling up for the past year or two,” says Brigitte Zeitlin, MPH, RD, “but I think COVID-19 has escalated the conversation.”

With that in mind, more people will seek out personalized nutrition solutions that work for their unique circumstances—like eating specifically for heart health or diabetes prevention. “People are concerned about those non-communicable diseases in relation to the pandemic and their overall longevity,” Feller says. New-to-2020 companies like Sugarbreak and Muniq (which make supplements and shakes for people with diabetes), as well as apps like Zoe and Wellory (which create eating plans for people based on biometric data and digital dietitian consults, respectively), will support people on their quests for tailor-made nutrition. Books like Mastering Mindful Eating, by Michelle Babb, RD (out in December), and Intuitive Eating for Every Day, by Evelyn Tribole, co-founder of the intuitive eating movement (out in March 2021), will also help people learn to better tune in to the needs of their own bodies. Zeitlin says 50 percent of her clients have questions about mindful eating: “Once they ‘get it,’ there is a big shift in their relationship with food,” she adds.

“My hope is that people will look more towards plant-based food choices, which are significantly better for the environment than animal foods." —Dana Hunnes, PhD, RD

The forthcoming 2020-2025 U.S. Dietary Guidelines (due to be released in January) will also support this move towards eating what feels right for you: Feller says they will include messaging from governmental health agencies on how to personalize the broad recommendations to your individual needs and background. (Other changes to expect: new guidance on added sugar intake and the first guidelines for pregnant and breastfeeding people.)

Another major factor transforming people’s relationship with food is the climate crisis. More than ever, “environmental concerns are weighing bigger on peoples’ minds as we’re seeing that every year we are getting closer to a tipping point where if we continue on the path we are on…this world could become more difficult to live in for all species—including our own,” says Dana Hunnes, PhD, RD, adjunct assistant professor at the University of California Los Angeles Fielding School of Public Health. The issue is especially important to Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), Feller adds, as these groups are disproportionately affected by climate change’s effects. “My hope is that people will look more towards plant-based food choices, which are significantly better for the environment than animal foods,” Dr. Hunnes says—a safe bet given that sales of plant-based products, like oat milk and alt-meat, have soared during the pandemic. But don’t count out meat entirely; with sales of sustainably-sourced meat also skyrocketing this year and the grass-fed beef industry expected to grow by $14.5 billion between now and 2024, better-for-the-planet animal products will have a place on many of our plates, too.

“People are going to be thinking about, ‘How do I make sure that I have good food that’s affordable and healthy?’” —Maya Feller, RD

In addition to the climate crisis, the ongoing economic crisis—and the historic increase in food insecurity—will transform the way many Americans think about food and community, specifically pushing many to newly consider food equity as a cornerstone value. “People are going to be thinking about, ‘How do I make sure that I have good food that’s affordable and healthy?’” Feller says. Indeed, Nielsen polling shows that 23 percent of Americans plan to grow their own food if the economy worsens, and 19 percent of Americans plan to use food banks more. As new federal aid continues to stall, expect to see a continued increase in local solutions for food access, such as community fridges and gardens. (Case study: New York City’s first “Freedge”—a grassroots community fridge program—opened in February; now there are over 60 across the five boroughs.)

The ongoing reckoning with racism in the food industry—propelled by the protests over the death of George Floyd—will slowly start to expand who is part of the larger American food culture, says Jenny Dorsey, chef and founder of Studio ATAO, a food and community-focused nonprofit. “The ingrained food culture in the U.S. is not the only food culture that exists,” she says, and the U.S. has a lot to learn from Indigenous, Ayurvedic, and traditional Chinese medicine-based food practices, for instance. While legacy food publications—including Bon Appetit and the New York Times Food and Cooking sections—start to hire more BIPOC folks and overhaul their style guides to decenter whiteness, groups like For the Culture (a forthcoming biannual magazine founded by Klancy Miller that celebrates Black women in food) will provide new coverage and visibility for BIPOC chefs and creatives, allowing them to shape what foods and ingredients hit the “mainstream.” There is a long way yet to go to make all areas of the food industry more equitable (not a single major food retailer has adopted the 15 Percent Pledge, for example) but for the first time in a long time, there are positive steps being taken towards a better future—so long as we’re willing to keep up the momentum.

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