Pandemic triggered six unhealthy eating habits, according to scientists

Alexandra Thompson
·4-min read
Table setting for dinner: empty plate, linen cloth and silverware. Top view, copy space
'Six themes pertaining to disordered eating during the pandemic emerged,' scientists have revealed. (Stock, Getty Images)

Scientists have linked the coronavirus pandemic to six unhealthy eating habits.

The isolation of various lockdowns combined with fears of catching the infection and even mourning its victims has caused many to comfort eat, with research suggesting more than half of Britons struggled to maintain their weight during the first "stay at home" restriction.

The eating disorder charity Beat has also reported a 302% increase in demand for its helpline over the past year.

After surveying more than 700 people, scientists from the University of Minnesota identified "six themes pertaining to disordered eating during the pandemic".

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These are made up of mindless eating and snacking; increased food consumption; a decrease in appetite or food intake; "eating to cope"; "pandemic‐related reductions in dietary intake"; and the "re‐emergence or marked increase" in eating disorders.

The scientists have put this down to "psychological stress", financial difficulties and "abrupt schedule changes".

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More than 1 million people are thought to have an eating disorder in the UK alone. (Stock, Getty Images)

"The COVID-19 [the disease caused by the coronavirus] pandemic has resulted in the rapid implementation of public health policies to reduce transmission of the virus," said lead author Dr Melissa Simone. 

"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. 

"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 behaviours."

Read more: Overweight people are coronavirus superspreaders

Around 1.25 million people are thought to have an eating disorder in the UK alone.

In the US, 9% of the population – 28.8 million people – will have an eating disorder in their life.

Watch: Obesity rising in children during pandemic

Lockdowns essentially bought time while scientists worked to develop effective vaccines and drugs against the newfound coronavirus.

Nevertheless, the "stay at home" restrictions "dramatically influenced the daily lives, employment status and income of many individuals, resulting in psychological consequences in the forms of stress, uncertainty, worry and hopelessness", the Minnesota scientists wrote in the International Journal of Eating Disorders.

Read more: Food industry 'shares blame' for coronavirus crisis

Eating disorders are known to be magnified by isolation, anxiety and "barriers to exercise", like the closing of gyms.

The economic and "food insecurity" consequences of the pandemic may have also made matters worse.

To better understand the outbreak's impact, the scientists analysed participants of the Eating and Activity over Time study, where 720 volunteers – average age 24 – completed a survey between April and May 2020.

The participants were asked about any psychological distress, stress, financial difficulties and food insecurity amid the pandemic.

Just under one in 10 (8%) of the participants were found to have "extreme unhealthy weight control behaviours", while more than half (53%) had "less extreme" behaviours.

Binge eating was reported by 14% of the respondents, the results show.

"There has been a lot of focus on obesity and its connection with COVID-19," said co-author Dr Dianne Neumark-Sztainer. 

Obesity was flagged as a risk factor for coronavirus complications early in the outbreak.

"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," said Dr Neumark-Sztainer.

"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."

As well as identifying the six eating themes, the scientists found "low stress management" was associated with "a higher count of extreme unhealthy weight control behaviours".

Food insecurity, depression symptoms and financial difficulties were linked to "a higher count of less extreme unhealthy weight control behaviours".

The scientists believe managing stress, depression and financial difficulties, while "providing tools to develop a routine", may "be particularly effective for emerging adults at risk of developing disordered eating during public health crises".

"The economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic will likely persist long beyond the dissemination of a vaccine," said Dr Simone. 

"Because our findings suggest moderate or severe financial difficulties may be linked with disordered eating behaviours, it is essential 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."

Watch: Big Brother star Nikki Grahame, 38, dies of anorexia