Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Unhealthy Eating in Populations with Obesity

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Objective: This study aimed to examine the impact of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic on patronage to unhealthy eating establishments in populations with obesity. Methods: Anonymized movement data accounting for roughly 10% of devices in the United States at 138,989 unhealthy eating locations from December 1, 2019, through April 2020 and the percentage of adults with obesity, the poverty rate, and the food environment index in 65% of United States counties were collected and merged. A cluster corrected Poisson spline regression was performed predicting patronage by day, the percentage of adults with obesity in the establishment’s county, the county’s poverty rate, and its food environment index, as well as their interactions. Results: Patronage to unhealthy eating establishments was higher where there was a higher percentage of the adult population with obesity. A similar pattern was observed for counties with a lower food environment index. These disparities appear to have increased as the COVID-19 pandemic spread. Conclusions: These results suggest unhealthy eating patterns during the COVID-19 pandemic are higher in already at-risk populations. Policy makers can use these findings to motivate interventions and programs aimed at increasing healthy food intake in at-risk communities during crises.

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