If your diet and eating habits have changed considerably since the emergence of COVID-19, you certainly aren’t alone. A new study just released by the University of Minnesota Medical School and School of Public Health links the coronavirus pandemic to six distinct unhealthy eating behaviors.
Food can be one of life’s greatest comforts during times of stress or hardship, so it makes some sense that many among us would fall back on some extra snacks during these strange times.
That being said, researchers say they’re most concerned by an observed rise in cases of various eating disorders (anorexia, bulimia, binge eating). In other words, these pandemic-fueled adverse food choices go far beyond a second or third bag of chips.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in the rapid implementation of public health policies to reduce transmission of the virus. While these protections are necessary, the disruptions to daily life associated with the ongoing pandemic may have significant negative consequences for the risk of eating disorders and symptoms,” says lead study author Melissa Simone, Ph.D., a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. “Eating disorders have one of the highest mortality rates across all psychiatric health concerns, and therefore, it is important to try to make links between the consequences of the pandemic and disordered eating behaviors.”
The six less than ideal pandemic eating habits identified by the research team are as follows:
- Mindlessly eating and snacking.
- An overall increase in food consumption, generally.
- A decrease in appetite and/or calories consumed.
- Eating as a coping mechanism.
- Pandemic-related reductions in dietary intake.
- Development of symptoms consistent with an eating disorder.
Everyone has their own personal relationship with food. Some can’t help but overeat while stressed out, while others can’t stand the thought of consuming anything while anxious. These six varied pandemic eating behaviors represent the full spectrum of typical human responses to stress within the context of diet.
These conclusions were drawn using data initially collected for UM’s Project EAT, gathered between April and May 2020. Originally, researchers wanted to investigate any relationships between the excess stress, financial worries, and psychological distress brought about by the pandemic and subsequent dietary changes.
Among studied individuals, 8% admitted to “extremely unhealthy weight control behaviors,” while another 53% reported less extreme unhealthy weight control behaviors. Meanwhile, 14% told study authors they had begun binge eating since COVID-19 emerged. It’s important to note that all of the aforementioned eating outcomes were linked to poor stress management, greater depressive feelings, and intense financial difficulties.
We’ve all heard by now that obesity is linked to a greater risk of severe COVID-19 symptoms. This new research suggests that the opposite may hold true as well.
The pandemic and everything that has come along with it have forced many people to lead a less active life. It isn’t a stretch to say that just as obesity promotes severe COVID symptoms, the pandemic, in general, has promoted obesity.
There has been a lot of focus on obesity and its connection with COVID-19. “It is also important to focus on the large number of people who have been engaging in disordered eating and are at risk for eating disorders during and following the pandemic,” explains Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, Ph.D., MPH, the principal investigator of Project EAT. “The majority of the young adults in our study are from diverse ethnic/racial and lower-income backgrounds, who often do not receive the services they need. To ensure health inequities do not increase, we need to meet the needs of these populations.”
The repercussions of COVID-19 will continue to be felt on a societal, cultural, and individual level for years and decades to come. Just as similar reports have forecast an influx of mental health issues like depression and anxiety disorder post-pandemic, this research indicates eating disorder statistics may increase as well.
“The economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic will likely persist long beyond the dissemination of a vaccine. Because our findings suggest that moderate or severe financial difficulties may be linked with disordered eating behaviors, it is essential that eating disorder preventive interventions and treatment efforts be affordable, easily accessible, and widely disseminated to those at heightened risk. As such, online or mobile-based interventions may prove to be effective and accessible modes for targeted intervention efforts,” Simone concludes.
The full study can be found here, published in the Journal of Eating Disorders.