Weight Stigma Predicts Emotional Distress, Binge Eating among Young Adults during COVID-19

September 17, 2020

Youth who experienced weight stigma prior to COVID-19 were 3-times more likely to engage in binge eating during the pandemic vs those who had not, a new study found.

Young adults in the US who experienced weight stigma before the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic have higher levels of emotional distress and are more likely to binge eat during COVID-19 vs those who did not report stigma, found a new study published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine.

Weight stigma is common for patients with obesity and can have harmful health consequences. In addition, links between obesity and complications of COVID-19 are receiving increasing attention during COVID-19.

Based on this knowledge, researchers from the University of Connecticut Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity and the University of Minnesota aimed to determine if a different aspect of weight, aside from body mass index (BMI), could predict adverse health implications during COVID-19.

"Our findings importantly identify weight stigma, independent of BMI, as a factor that may worsen eating behaviors and psychological distress for young adults during this pandemic. These increased health risks, particularly for binge eating, indicate a need for supportive and educational resources to help lessen the negative impact of stigma on eating behaviors," said co-author Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, PhD, MPH, professor, University of Minnesota, in a UConn press release.

The study analyzed data from 584 young adults (mean age, 24.6 years; mean BMI, 28.2) enrolled in the population-based longitudinal EAT (Eating and Activity over Time) 2010-2018 study, who were invited to complete a follow-up online survey during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Weight stigma previously reported by participants in 2018 was examined as a predictor of binge eating, eating to cope, physical activity, depressive symptoms, and stress during COVID-19.

The results showed that prepandemic experiences of weight stigma in 2018 predicted higher levels of stress, depressive symptoms, eating to cope with stress, and binge eating among young adults during COVID-19, but were unrelated to physical activity.

Other key findings include:

  • Participants who experienced weight stigma prior to COVID-19 were 3-times more likely to engage in binge eating during the pandemic vs those who had not.
  • Weight stigma predicted these health consequences for both men and women, regardless of body weight.
  • Weight stigma predicted these worse health consequences during initial shelter-in-place restrictions and after those restrictions were lifted.

"With additional outbreaks and more cases of COVID-19 expected in the coming months, it is important to support individuals who may be prone to worse health and health behaviors exacerbating their risk during these times of pandemic,” said lead author Rebecca Puhl, PhD, professor of Human Development and Family Sciences, deputy director at the UConn Rudd Center, in the UConn press release. “Weight stigma warrants attention in research and discourse related to COVID-19 and should be considered in public health messaging."