Disordered eating in a population-based sample of young adults during the COVID-19 outbreak

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Objective: The present study aimed to describe the experience of, and factors associated with, disordered eating in a population-based sample of emerging adults during the COVID-19 outbreak. Method: Participants in the EAT 2010–2018 (Eating and Activity over Time) study were invited to complete the C-EAT (COVID-19 EAT) survey in April–May 2020. There were 720 respondents to the survey (age: 24.7 ± 2.0 years). Psychological distress, stress, stress management, financial difficulties, and food insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic were examined as cross-sectional correlates of disordered eating in 2020. Open-ended questions assessed the perceived impact of the pandemic on eating behaviors. Results: Low stress management was significantly associated with a higher count of extreme unhealthy weight control behaviors (UWCBs). Food insecurity, higher depressive symptoms, and financial difficulties were significantly associated with a higher count of less extreme UWCBs. Higher stress and depressive symptoms were significantly associated with greater odds of binge eating. Six themes pertaining to disordered eating during the pandemic emerged: (a) mindless eating and snacking; (b) increased food consumption; (c) generalized decrease in appetite or dietary intake; (d) eating to cope; (e) pandemic-related reductions in dietary intake; and (f) re-emergence or marked increase in eating disorder symptoms. Discussion: Psychological distress, stress management, financial difficulties, and abrupt schedule changes may have contributed to disordered eating during the COVID-19 pandemic. Interventions that target stress management, depressive symptoms, and financial strain and provide tools to develop a routine may be particularly effective for emerging adults at risk of developing disordered eating during public health crises.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1189-1201
Number of pages13
JournalInternational Journal of Eating Disorders
Issue number7
Early online dateMar 15 2021
StatePublished - Jul 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Research is supported by grant numbers R35HL139853 (PI: D. Neumark-Sztainer) and R01HL116892 (PI: D. Neumark-Sztainer) from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Melissa Simone's time is supported by T32MH082761 (PI: Scott Crow) from the National Institute of Mental Health. Rebecca Emery's time was supported by National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (grant numbers TL1R002493 [PI: Fulkerson] and UL1TR002494 [PI: Blazar]). The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, National Institute of Mental Health, or the National Institutes of Health.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 Wiley Periodicals LLC.


  • COVID-19
  • binge eating
  • financial difficulty
  • psychological distress
  • unhealthy weight control
  • young adults


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