Changes in lifestyle, diet, and body weight during the first COVID 19 ‘lockdown’ in a student sample
Changes in lifestyle and body weight were examined retrospectively in students at a German university during the first COVID-19 lockdown period (March 12- May 3, 2020) using an online survey.
The online survey contained 37 questions on personal information including study program, age group, body weight and height, sex, sleep quality before, during and after lockdown, changes in housing and job situation, eating behaviour, alcohol consumption, physical activity, and smoking, and was adapted using several existing questionnaires
Data from a total of 827 participants was used.
Almost half of the students reported perceived body weight changes with about 27% gaining weight and around 22% losing weight.
Regression analyses showed that consumption changes in the following food categories: fruits, sweets and cakes, bread and bakery products, pasta, savoury snacks, and meats and sausages were predictive of weight changes.
Additionally, changes in the frequency of cooking with fresh ingredients, physical activity, exercise, smoking, and alcohol consumption as well as pre-lockdown BMI were all predictive of weight changes.
Given the continuous global pandemic, increased and innovative public health efforts to support this population group are needed.
Specific findings regarding alcohol consumption and body weight
Research conducted so far into lifestyle changes during lockdowns has occurred in multiple countries with diverse samples. alcohol consumption and physical activity seem to have increased in some countries, and decreased in others (Ammar et al., 2020; EIT Food, 2020; Gallo et al., 2020). The differing findings may reflect the strength of restrictions or the impact of the virus in each location, as well as socioeconomic status, cultural differences or other characteristics of the population groups investigated.
Recent studies in student populations revealed increased rates of binge eating, dietary restriction, and alcohol use problems during the lockdown period (Flaudias et al., 2020, 2021). Indeed, risk of disordered eating, low financial security and increased stress may mean that students are particularly vulnerable to weight, lifestyle, and behaviour changes during the lockdown and pandemic.
Not only do changes in consumption patterns seem to explain body weight changes, but behavioural risk factors such as smoking and alcohol consumption also appear to play a role in the reported weight changes among the students. Alcohol consumption has also been reported to be associated with stress and boredom (Cooper et al., 1995) but increased consumption is more often related to weight gain than weight loss.
The study results show an association of weight change with various changes in lifestyle and dietary behaviours during the first COVID-19 lockdown among students in Germany. The study highlights the importance of physical activity and exercise but also underlines how changes in the consumption of different food groups can impact body weight during a life changing time period.
Given the continuous crisis due to COVID-19 and recurrent lockdowns in many countries globally (Margaritis et al., 2020), it might be time to deepen a specialized focus on the prevention of unhealthy behaviours that can cause weight changes during social isolation, particularly in young people.
This would require encouraging physical activity while reducing smoking and alcohol consumption and advising on the intake of healthy foods, in a manner that can reach this educated population group and take into consideration their particular challenges.
Students are a crucial population group for the future and their ability to cope with drastic life events without harming their health should be a high priority for health professionals and stake holders.