Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Christchurch Earthquakes Shook Healthy Eating

By Stephen Luntz

A study at the University of Canterbury has found that earthquakes cause women to eat less healthy food, and provided evidence for the factors that maximise the effect.

As tragic as they were, the Christchurch earthquakes proved a boon for science. A number of studies of sample populations were already underway, giving baseline data that could be used to study the effects of the disasters (AS, October 2012, p.12).

“We were following a sample of residents and looking at eating behaviours, seeing what determines people’s food choices,” explains Dr Roeline Kuijer, a psychologist at the University of Canterbury. “We had not analysed the data when the quakes hit, and immediately afterwards the focus changed. There are very few studies in the international literature that have been able to follow people from before to after a natural disaster.”

Three-quarters of the sample were women, most of whom were middle-aged. “Until after the earthquakes, eating habits were fairly stable,” Kujer says. “Following the February 2011 earthquake, participants started reporting unhealthier eating patterns.”

Kujer rules out the possibility that supply line disruptions could have made fresh food less available. The post-quake study was done 3 months afterwards, by which time food availability was largely back to normal.

“These findings are important as the short-term negative effects associated with an unhealthy diet, such as low energy and low mood, may make coping in the aftermath of a disaster even more difficult,” Kuijer says.

Surprisingly, the direct physical impact of the earthquake did not determine the extent to which participants changed their diet. What mattered was the emotional effects, with participants who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder more likely to change their eating habits. Kujer says this tallies with other studies that have shown that more minor stresses affect eating behaviour.

The findings were presented to the Australasian Society for Behavioural Health and Medicine.