stress eating during the pandemic

A March 2021 New York Times article asked the question “How much weight did we gain during lockdowns?” The answer was 2 pounds a month. However, as noted by reporter Roni Caryn Rabin, this finding was likely biased by the fact that the data came from smart phone apps tied to people’s bathroom scales. As you might imagine, those who fastidiously track their weight by definition already have healthy lifestyle habits. Another group of researchers used smartphone-based trackers to record physical activity over the pandemic, leading Rabin to suggest that weight gains observed on the scale could have reflected an increased sedentary lifestyle among people who no longer had to run to catch a bus, climb stairs, or just be out and about.

How have you fared during the lockdowns in terms of your health habits? Did you decide early on to outfit your own home gym, or just download a fitness app? Did you actually end up using these? At the same time, however, did you also spend more time in the kitchen preparing elaborate meals, baking bread, or just comforting yourself with a tub of mocha chip gelato? Now that lockdowns are at least partially becoming history, are you finding it hard to leave your COVID-related health habits behind you for good?

Although the Rabin article was thought-provoking, it wasn’t based strictly on experimental evidence. A new study by University of Padova’s Cinzia Checcheto and colleagues (2021) provides scientific data to show not only how COVID-19 changed people’s eating patterns, but also who was more likely to let their health habits slip and slide over the early months of 2020.

The Italian researchers proposed that dysfunctional eating habits during the lockdown reflected reactions to the stress and anxiety that many people experienced during those harrowing times. A meta-analysis of studies based on online surveys summarized by the authors showed there to be high rates stress, anxiety, and depression amounting to 30 to 34% of the nearly 120,000 respondents sampled, higher than typical population averages.

Checcheto and her colleagues noted that when it came to food, these emotional disturbances and their potential effect on eating were compounded by the notorious shortages at the lockdown’s beginnings. Not only were people affected by the stress of the virus itself, but also by the need to stockpile the dwindling supplies of basic groceries. You can undoubtedly relate to this phenomenon if you ever scoured nearly-empty store shelves for precious commodities such as rice and canned tuna. As the Italian authors go on to note, during the pandemic there also was an upswing in people’s tendencies to eat pizza and pasta, the traditional Italian comfort foods.

However, maybe you managed to escape the temptation of indulging in unlimited comfort food, Italian or otherwise. Looking at the survey numbers for stress-related symptoms, these affected a substantial number, but not the majority of the population. What made some people more susceptible to COVID’s effects on health habits than others?

Checcheto and her fellow researchers proposed that a key personality trait that could predict vulnerability to disordered eating during the pandemic is “alexithymia.” Individuals high on this quality have difficulty identifying their own emotions, and indeed pay little attention to them. Being unable to put their feelings into words, they become more likely to externalize their anxiety through such acts as over-indulgence in comfort foods.

Beyond personality, the other key factors identified by the University of Padova researchers as potentially contributing to lockdown’s effects on eating habits were social class, current health status, history of eating disorders, and the actual physical qualities of their environments. Specific questions about the environmental contributors to disturbed eating asked participants to describe the dimensions of their home and the number of other people living with them. Quality of relationship measures asked people to rate how well they got along with those sharing lockdown life. Additionally, a “quality of life” measure took into account the combination of income and amount of living space.

Looking further into the realities of people’s lives as they adjusted to changes in their work habits necessitated by the pandemic, the research team asked participants to report on the changes caused by the lockdown on their work habits. These questions included whether they had a desk job they could bring home, or whether they were employed in public-facing jobs, particularly those involving contact with COVID patients. In addition to describing their conditions of work, participants also reported on their perceived work load.

The measure of disturbed eating that Checceto et al. chose for their main index consisted of a standard clinical instrument designed to assess binge eating. After indicating whether or not they had recently experienced a period of intense heavy eating, participants then went on to describe their emotional experiences during such an episode. Participants also completed an “emotional eating” scale with questions such as “Do you have a desire to eat when you’re irritated?” The 365 participants (73% women, average age 35) in the sample completed all measures in mid-May 2020 with instructions to fill each one out based on their recall of Phase 1 (March 2020) and their current experiences during the Phase 2 (May 2020) period of the Italian lockdown.

Turning now to the findings, as the authors predicted, people reporting higher levels of stress, poorer relationships, and lower overall quality of life also reported higher levels of emotional eating. Supporting the role of personality, the authors also reported that the stress-disordered eating relationship was stronger for those high in this maladaptive trait of alexithymia. However, the prediction of who would have a greater tendency toward binge eating during lockdown improved substantially when quality of life also became factored in to the equation.

As the authors noted, “lower quality or smaller personal space, the absence of access to external space, or a lower family income made individuals more vulnerable to the negative consequences of anxiety” (p. 5). In other words, if you were cooped up in a small apartment or house with people who you disliked, your odds of turning to food for comfort increased, particularly if you were also given to the emotional inhibition associated with alexithymia. Adding to these risk factors was BMI, or the index of weight to height, meaning that people who were heavier were also more vulnerable to the lockdown’s impact of stress on emotional eating.

The only good news from this study was that disordered eating decreased, according to the reports of participants, between Phase 1 and Phase 2 of the lockdown.  The question remains, however, of whether people’s eating habits were permanently changed by living through the stress of early 2020. The study ended in May 2020, which was perhaps too soon to be able to detect longer-term impacts.

Looking back now on your own experiences over the course of 2020-21, the Italian findings provide insight into what led you to turn more to comfort food than you ever have before. Perhaps you are one of those individuals who has trouble identifying your feelings when you’re stressed. Learning to gain insight into your emotional experiences could potentially lead you back on track with your health.

Furthermore, the Italian findings also point to the need to look beyond individual personality traits as the only determinants of reactions to stress. Taking into account your own living environment, including your relationships with other people, could also help you turn the course of your eating habits back onto a healthier pathway. Rather than blame yourself for giving into your inability to control your diet, you can view your eating as a function of these external factors that can heighten your stress during difficult times.

To sum up, even as COVID-19 perhaps may be receding in its effect on your life, there may as yet in the future be other stressors that lead you to seek solace from your food. Understanding your risk factors can help you find ways to find a healthier way to adapt to life’s exigencies.

The original version of this article was originally published in Psychology Today by Susan Krauss Whitbourne Ph.D.

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