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NMSU study shows nearly half of U.S. adults gained weight during pandemic

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The Covid-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on health and health-related behaviors.

Research from New Mexico State University has found that the pandemic fueled stress-related unhealthy eating habits in Americans. Now, a new study co-authored by a researcher from the NMSU Department of Public Health Sciences shows nearly half of all adults in the United States gained weight during the first year of the pandemic.

 The new findings were part of a national assessment on weight gain in America conducted by a research team that included Jagdish Khubchandani, a public health professor at NMSU.

“Obesity was an epidemic before the pandemic, and little was known on body weight changes in the past year for adult Americans,” Khubchandani said. “We wanted to estimate weight changes in the U.S. population and its determinants after the first year of the pandemic."

The study, published in “Diabetes and Metabolic Syndrome: Clinical Research and Reviews,” included 3,473 adult participants. The results show 48 percent of the study group reported gaining weight during the first 12 months of the pandemic, March 2020-April 2021.

Participants who reported weight gain were more likely to be males, white or Hispanic, married, 45 years old or older, working full time, have less than a college education or living in southern and western states or rural areas of the U.S., according to the study.

The study also found individuals were more likely to have gained weight if they were overweight before the pandemic (2.07 times), had children at home (1. 39 times), had depression or anxiety (1.25 times) or checked body weight within the last six months (1.32 times).

“Our study relates to a lot of national trends indicating high stress in some groups such as parents, essential workers and those with limited incomes and lower education,” he said. “Even before the pandemic, stress was a major determinant of unhealthy lifestyles in adult Americans, and the problem continues to worsen for certain groups.”

Khubchandani co-authored a separate study last year that found depression and anxiety rates in the U.S. have more than doubled among adults amid the pandemic.

He said the new findings are concerning because weight gain is higher among certain groups that are already vulnerable to poorer health outcomes. He added that the pandemic may widen existing health disparities and increase the chronic disease burden for some groups.

“It’s a perfect health storm,” he said. “The U.S. consists of an adult population where the majority suffer from a chronic disease, are either overweight or obese, do not meet the physical activity guidelines, or have unhealthy eating patterns with lower consumption of fruits and vegetables.”

Khubchandani said he advocates for community-based health promotion interventions to increase physical activity and improve diet among adults.

“We hope that with the ongoing pandemic, policymakers will consider fiscal and social policies that can help increase access to healthier diets and provide food security and mental health services and greater access to care,” he said. “Clinicians also have a unique opportunity to screen for psychological distress and body weight during their interactions with the general public. These screenings can help individuals become aware of the need to manage stress and weight to prevent chronic diseases.”

To read the study, visit www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1871402122000066.