Many consumers struggled with their mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, a new study conducted by researchers from UT Southwestern Medical Center explored how mental health during the pandemic affected physical health outcomes.
According to their findings, mental health struggles may be responsible for weight gain among obese consumers throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is a fascinating model for individual and social stress and showed that changes in mental health can really preclude people from maintaining a healthy body weight,” said researcher Dr. Jaime Almandoz.
Mental health and physical health
The researchers surveyed over 400 people who had been receiving obesity treatment for at least two years at one of three clinics in Dallas about their mental and physical health. The surveys were conducted between March 2021, and November 2021.
Though all of the participants were enrolled in a program designed to help them lose weight, they all gained weight over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. The average weight gain was over 4% of body weight, though some gained as much as 80 pounds throughout the pandemic.
The team then broke down the survey responses to get a better idea of the participants’ lifestyles and mental health. They learned that mental health concerns played a significant role in weight gain. Participants who reported struggling with anxiety, stress, and depression gained the most weight.
The researchers also accounted for socioeconomic factors, like household income and education level. While nearly 60% of participants were college graduates and almost half made more than $75,000 per year, these mental health and weight struggles persisted.
“People who are enrolled in weight management programs typically lose weight,” said Dr. Almandoz. “If people with these levels of privilege are experiencing significant challenges during the pandemic, these stresses are likely amplified in the general population.
Though the study showed that following an unhealthy diet and having poor sleeping habits also contributed to weight gain, these findings emphasize that consumers’ mental health is an important part of their physical health.
“Our findings underscore the complexity of obesity; it’s not just about telling people to eat less and move more,” Dr. Almandoz said. “There’s a mental health aspect that has to be integrated into treating the person as a whole.”