April 21, 2021

Charted: America's weight gain amid Covid-19

Daily Briefing

    The vast majority of Americans said the Covid-19 epidemic is a significant stressor for them, with more than 40% saying they've gained undesired weight since the start of the epidemic, according to the American Psychological Association's (APA) annual "Stress In America" report.

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    Survey details

    The Harris Poll conducted the APA's latest iteration of the survey between Feb. 19 and 24. The online survey included responses from 3,013 U.S. adults.

    The survey results grouped responses based on generations, parental status, job classification, and race and ethnicity, among other factors. For its age-related findings, the survey defines:

    • Generation Z as respondents between the ages of 18 and 24;
    • Millennials as respondents between the ages of 25 and 42;
    • Gen Xers as respondents between the ages of 43 and 56;
    • Baby boomers as respondents between the ages of 57 and 75; and
    • Older adults as respondents ages 76 and older.

    Most respondents are stressed—but some more than others

    Overall, APA found that 78% of respondents said the Covid-19 epidemic was a major stressor for them, and 67% said they felt more stressed as a result of the epidemic. Moreover, 48% of parents said the level of stress in their life had increased since prior to the pandemic, the survey found.

    When broken down by generation, the survey found that Gen Z were most likely to say Covid-19 had harmed their mental health, with 46% saying their mental health had worsened as a result of the epidemic, followed by 33% of Gen Xers and 31% of Millennials. In addition, nearly two-thirds of Gen Z respondents and 62% of Millennial respondents said they felt lonely during the epidemic.

    And when it came to mental health diagnoses, 9% of respondents said they had been diagnosed with a mental health disorder since the start of the epidemic, including 25% of respondents who qualified as essential workers, the survey found.

    Most respondents say they've experienced undesired weight change

    According to the survey, 61% of respondents said they had experienced an undesired weight change since the start of the epidemic, with 42% saying they had experienced undesired weight gain and 18% saying they had experienced undesired weight loss.

    Among those who reported undesired weight gain, the average gain was 29 pounds. Roughly 50% of those who reported undesired weight gain said they had gained more than 15 pounds, and 10% said they had gained more than 50 pounds.

    According to the survey, women were more likely than men to report undesired weight gain (45% vs. 39%), but men who experienced undesired weight gain reported gaining more weight than women did (37 pounds on average, vs. 22 pounds).

    Younger adults were more likely to report an undesired weight change than older adults, with 52% of adult Gen Z respondents and 48% of millennials reporting undesired weight gain since the start of the pandemic.

    On average, Gen Z adults who reported undesired weight gain since the start of the epidemic gained 28 pounds, while among millennials the average was 41 pounds.

    Meanwhile, the 22% of Gen Z adults who reported undesired weight loss saw their weight drop by an average of 22 pounds, while the 22% of millennials who reported undesired weight loss saw their weight drop by 26 pounds on average.

    Hispanic adults were the most likely to report undesired weight gain, and among those who reported such gains, the average gain was 28 pounds. And while Black and white adults were equally likely to report undesired weight gain, among those who reported such gains, Black adults gained more weight on average (35 pounds) than white adults did (30 pounds).

    Meanwhile, more than half of parents and about half of respondents who qualified as essential workers said they had experienced undesired weight gain, and the average increases among those populations were 36 pounds and 38 pounds, respectively.

    According to experts, changes in weight may be linked to other stress-related trends identified in the report, including the nearly 25% of respondents who said they were drinking more alcohol to cope with stress amid the pandemic. In addition, two-thirds of Americans reported either sleeping more or less than they wanted to during the pandemic.

    Additional findings

    The survey identified several other stressors for respondents, Psychology Today reports.

    For instance, 66% said they were worried about access to and the cost of health care, 62% said they were concerned about mass shooting events, 55% cited climate change as a stressor, 51% said increasing suicide rates worried them, and 45% said they were stressed about the opioid crisis.

    The survey also found that discrimination and racial violence continued to be a stressor, particularly for Black respondents (48%), Hispanic respondents (43%), Native American respondents (42%), and Asian respondents (41%).

    However, despite widespread stress, 70% of respondents said they were hopeful about the future, the report found.

    'Alarming' findings

    Because the survey's findings were based on respondents' self-reports rather than independent measurements, it's possible they may not accurately reflect epidemic-related weight changes. Even so, experts expressed concern about the report's findings.

    Angela Fitch, associate director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Weight Center and VP of the Obesity Medicine Association, said the findings in the report are "alarming."

    "But you can see where it could be the case," she added. "I mean, it's been a very challenging year, on multiple levels."

    Looking ahead, Fitch said if more data backs up the findings in APA's report, "it's going to be a significant issue for us in the United States."

    As for why younger generations reported more weight gain than older generations, Barbara Bumberry, from Mercy Hospital Springfield, said she's unsure.

    "I don't know specifics. It could be it's not that long from when they were living at home or maybe they are still living at home," she said. "Maybe they don't know how to cook. Maybe they're used to microwave meals that aren't the healthiest. Maybe it was their eating habits at home" (Searing, Washington Post, 4/19; O'Kane, CBS News, 3/23; KY3, 3/30; Greenberg, Psychology Today, 3/28; Schimelpfening, Healthline, 3/23).

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