A bevy of studies from around the world attests to the mental health impacts of COVID-19 and the associated lockdowns and quarantine measures. Similarly, the association between stress and poor eating habits is a well-established fact. However, the effects of pandemic-related stress levels on eating habits has received little attention.
A team of American researchers whose recent paper appeared in Investigations in Health, Psychology and Education sought to bridge this gap. Their online, cross-sectional study of 838 American adults reveals the interesting effects of the pandemic on eating habits and their relation to stress.
The web-based study included a 30-item questionnaire relating to perceived stress and eating practices during the COVID-19 pandemic.
First, at a general level, stress scores were found to be significantly higher for multiracial persons, Hispanics, part-time employees (as opposed to full-time), single persons, those living in the Midwest, those who were obese (prior to COVID-19), and individuals under the age of 35.
“The findings are disconcerting given the living conditions of certain groups,” said study author Jagdish Khubchandani, a professor of public health at New Mexico State University. “We will have greater inequality in the society that will, unfortunately, affect more females, racial and ethnic minorities, and the younger people across the nation who were just starting their life and career.”
The pandemic also had a significant impact on many individuals’ eating habits. Fasting (16%), restricted eating (20%), skipping meals (25%) and overeating (39%) all increased compared to before the pandemic.
A particularly interesting finding is that a roughly equal number of people actually reported an improved diet during COVID-19 (32%) compared to individuals whose diet worsened (31%).
While the questionnaire did not delve into lifestyle changes that accompanied changes in diet, it would be interesting to understand what led to these changes. For example, faced with closure of restaurants, did some individuals turn to cooking at home (a typically healthier practice) and others to ordering in more frequently (a typically less healthy practice)?
The next important piece of information comes from the fact that those who indicated the highest levels of stress were also those who reported a worsened diet. Greater stress was associated with higher levels of fasting, restricted eating, skipping meals and overeating, meaning that basically any change in diet could be correlated with greater stress levels.
A next important step will be in understanding what specific psychological and behavioral consequences of COVID-19 mediate the relationship between pandemic-related stress and poor eating. Clearly, a significant portion of individuals actually improved their diet in this context; the same individuals were also less likely to experience greater stress.
The question remains as to the nature of this relation: is the improved diet helping individuals deal better with stress, or has a lessened stress response helped individuals better adapt to restaurant closures and other changes?
At the time of writing, COVID-19 is not yet over, nor is it likely to be the last pandemic humanity faces. Understanding why and how individuals change their behaviors, and what mental states drive or are driven by these changes, will help individuals to better adapt and maintain healthier habits, both as regards stress and eating, in the future.
The study, “The COVID-19 Pandemic, Stress, and Eating Practices in the United States“, was authored by Jagdish Khubchandani, Jayanthi Kandiah, and Diana Saiki.