Comfort food: Women more likely to admit to overeating, under exercising amid COVID-19

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You only have to look as far as social media to be bombarded with images of recipes and what people are eating and cooking during this period of isolation amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Food or a lack thereof has become the forefront of what people are thinking about as we are restricted from indulging in other social behaviours. And, while the meals might look enticing and satisfying from the pictures, how many of you are overeating to cope with stress or anxiety during this outbreak?

Comfort food: Women more likely to admit to overeating, under exercising amid COVID-19 - Brand Spur

In a global survey of more than 16,000 people across 16 major countries, overeating is cited as the third biggest ailment or health condition that respondents say they are suffering from as a result of COVID-19 after underexercising and anxiety.

Women are more likely to admit they are overeating compared to men in 15 out of the 16 countries with the biggest gap between the genders in Canada and Russia (a 13 percentage-point difference), followed by the United Kingdom (12), India (10), Australia, South Korea and the United States (9).

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Added to this, women are most likely to say they’re overeating in Brazil (39%), South Africa and Mexico (29%), Canada (28%) and the U.K. (25%).

Experts say a combination of gender coping mechanisms, social stereotypes and disruption of routines along with additional burdens due to COVID-19 may be contributing to why women feel they are eating more than they otherwise should or would.

Comfort food: Women more likely to admit to overeating, under exercising amid COVID-19 - Brand Spur

Emotional eating, meal sizes & stereotypes

Barbel Knauper, Professor and Director of Health Psychology Laboratory at McGill University in Montreal, said emotional eating, which is overeating in response to negative emotions, is more prevalent in women at all times than it is in men.

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“Generally, this might be related to higher rates of depression and anxiety in women than in men, with emotional eating being one of many coping mechanisms to deal with negative emotions,” said Prof. Knauper.

“It might not be that women and men view eating differently but rather that emotional eating is a more common coping mechanism for women who are also more likely to have symptoms of depression and anxiety.”

Anxiety was the second most cited health concern in the study with at least a quarter of people in 11 countries saying they are suffering from this because of the pandemic, while depression was the fifth biggest concern. Women were more likely than men to cite anxiety and depression in all countries, except for Japan and China where more men reported feeling depressed.

Claus Vogele, Professor of Clinical and Health Psychology, and Annika Lutz, Postdoctoral Researcher in Clinical Psychology at the University of Luxembourg, said women are known to experience eating problems more frequently because they report overeating more often, and also restrict their eating behaviour to change their body weight or shape more frequently than men.

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“This could make them more prone to reporting overeating, i.e. eating more than their diet plan allows,” they said.

“Social stereotypes about adequate meal sizes also differ for men and women. In consequence, large meals are socially more acceptable for men, which could contribute to comparatively fewer reports of overeating among men.”

Shilagh Mirgain, Psychologist at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, agreed to add that men are more likely to admit to eating larger meal portions, while women are more likely to report a sense of loss of control over how much they eat and experience negative consequences such as dissatisfaction with body image.

“Women are also more likely than men to internalize stress and beat themselves up mentally,” said Dr. Mirgain. “Emotional overeating is seen more often in females than in males, perhaps as a result of the greater intensity of emotions expressed and experienced by women.”

In terms of body image, women in the survey were more likely to say they under-exercising compared to men in all of the countries except for Mexico, Spain, China and Brazil.

Loss of structure, boredom & age

Experts said these social factors and biological coping mechanisms are being exacerbated by social distancing and isolation because of the pandemic.

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People are experiencing a loss of structure, and the loss of regular coping strategies such as going to the gym, while grocery shopping and stockpiling food can also be overwhelming, according to Dr. Mirgain.

“Not being able to access certain foods a person typically eats can bring up a lot of anxiety. When things feel outside our control and there is increased anxiety and feelings of helplessness, it’s easy to turn to food for self-soothing,” said Dr. Mirgain.

“Under significant stress, most people automatically revert back to past coping strategies. For women, this may include a vulnerability to resort to emotional eating to cope.”

Meanwhile, Prof. Knauper adds that one of the main reasons for emotional eating is boredom and people are experiencing this more as they spend most of their time at home.

“One could do further analysis to see whether it is in relation to living alone, for example, in which case younger women may experience more boredom than their older counterparts, causing them to overeat more,” said Prof. Knauper.

Younger women – those aged 34 and under – were most likely to cite overeating of all the age groups. They were also most likely to say they are suffering from insomnia, anxiety and depression, according to the study.

Prof. Vogele and Lutz said eating problems frequently occur first during adolescence and young adulthood and this includes overeating, dieting, but also clinical manifestations of eating disorders.

Dr. Mirgain also said that it is during this phase of life when we enter adulthood and go through lifestyle changes such as getting a higher education, getting married or living with a partner and parenthood.

“During this developmental phase, it can be easy to feel lost or even rudderless. As a result of this, women may turn to food as a coping strategy and vulnerability to overeating may be the highest,” said Dr. Mirgain.

Added to this, women are often caregivers in a family, and their responsibilities may have increased on top of what they already do in the home because of the pandemic. As a result, self-care such as regular exercise and healthy eating may be put “on the back burner.”

How to cope without overeating

Experts agree there are various ways for women to soothe themselves with things other than food so that excessive weight gain from overeating and less exercise doesn’t put them at risk of developing long term illnesses such as diabetes.

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Prof. Knauper said it’s important to identify and monitor new behaviours that have already set in such as eating while watching Netflix, which people are likely doing much more now, and how to break them with more adaptive behaviours.

“The good news is that the new habits are likely not yet deeply established and thus are still relatively easy to change,” said Prof. Knauper.

Dr. Mirgain recommends women process their emotions versus “stuffing” them by writing about it in a journal, talking to a trusted and safe person, or creating something to help express them.

“Express your emotions by making something, such as an art project, a vision board, a collage, baking something, TikTok dancing, gardening or writing,” she said. “Reach out to people, do video chats, plan some social time virtually to build your support base.”

She also said it’s important to be compassionate to ourselves and prioritize our self-care to help keep our immune systems healthy like getting regular sleep.

“Mindful awareness of the feelings and triggers, knowing that you are not alone and others are feeling the same way, and then offering some kindness to yourself through words, touch, actions [help],” said Dr. Mirgain.

Meanwhile, Prof. Vogele and Lutz recommend finding time to exercise at home and outside and sticking to a time slot. But if you do indulge in food – enjoy it slowly.

“Pay attention to the taste and the experience of eating and make it a special occasion,” they said. “This way you make it a treat instead of gobbling down food.”

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Comfort food: Women more likely to admit to overeating, under exercising amid COVID-19 - Brand SpurComfort food: Women more likely to admit to overeating, under exercising amid COVID-19 - Brand Spur

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Comfort food: Women more likely to admit to overeating, under exercising amid COVID-19 - Brand SpurComfort food: Women more likely to admit to overeating, under exercising amid COVID-19 - Brand Spur

Latest News

Singapore Employees Lack Retirement Support From Companies While Financial Wellbeing Becomes a Top Priority: Aon Survey

SINGAPORE - Media OutReach - 14 April 2021 - Aon plc (NYSE: AON), a leading global professional services firm providing a broad range of risk, retirement and health solutions, has released the findings of the 2021 Trends in Retirement & Financial Wellbeing survey for Singapore.


Working adults in Singapore ranked retirement planning as their top priority but an alarming 80% underestimate how much they really need to retire. While retirement support from employers is also lacking, further challenges remain around transparency in group retirement plans' investment offerings and employees foregoing long-term perspectives to seek short-term gains.


Ashley Palmer, Regional Managing Partner, Retirement & Investments, Asia for Aon, said, ""Employers can have a significant impact on how much their employees save by instilling smart habits and healthy money behaviours. The right long-term savings vehicles, effective communications and financial tools will help Singapore's workforce be more financially resilient in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic."


The survey identifies three main themes in financial wellbeing and retirement support for Singapore employees.


Financial wellbeing support is the new employee expectation. As a result, close to 40% of employers rank an employee financial wellbeing strategy as their highest priority, followed by emotional and mental wellbeing support. The survey shows that 70% of Singapore employers will formulate or execute financial wellbeing programmes throughout 2021, in line with employee expectations. Companies also view offering a financial wellbeing programme critical in increasing employee engagement and remaining competitive in the talent market.


There is an increasing trend of employer-led supplementary savings plans. Currently, 22% of companies surveyed offer Central Provident Fund (CPF) top-up contributions to citizens and Permanent Residents. But, close to 40% of the working population in Singapore are foreigners who do not have access to CPF and are likely to have foregone their retirement benefits in their home countries. To bridge this gap, and to provide equitable retirement benefits to all employee groups, close to 50% of the organisations surveyed offer supplementary retirement benefits to their foreign staff. Financial services firms are leading in this practice, followed by the technology and the healthcare sectors.


Promisingly, a third of organisations in Singapore are prioritising a thorough review of their supplementary retirement arrangements in 2021.


Alicia Brittain, Senior Consultant & Actuary, Retirement & Investments, Singapore for Aon, said, "Forward-looking companies first need to understand the financial worries of their employees and identify the gaps in their benefits offering. The most effective approaches are aimed at changing individual behaviours towards money and savings and providing accessible programmes and vehicles to deliver sustainable change. For example, when organisations provide retirement benefits as cash-in-lieu, it is most likely immediately spent and so does not form part of an emergency fund or long-term savings for the employees' retirement years. Supplementary retirement plans solve this issue and are more flexible and cost effective - and can also offer contributions above the monthly CPF wage cap to increase employee savings."


Employees in Singapore lack a well-defined default investment strategy. Less than 30% of the surveyed companies in Singapore currently offer their employees an investment choice in their retirement plans, and only 15% of retirement plans have a default investment fund. This leads to employees selecting their own optimal investment funds. They may lack experience in understanding investments, which can lead to misallocating their money and result in inadequate retirement savings or excessive risk taking.


Brittain added, "The key to protecting employees and adding value to savings in any defined contribution retirement plan is a well-defined default investment strategy. This includes frequent performance monitoring, actively managing investment risks and dynamically reducing investment risk as employees move towards retirement."


Notes to Editors

The Aon 2021 Trends in Retirement & Financial Wellbeing for Singapore survey was designed to help organisations understand the unique retirement and financial needs of their Singapore workforce. This tri-annual survey was completed by organisations with employee populations ranging from five to over 4,000 and are based in Singapore. Responding Rewards and Benefits Leaders, HR and Finance Professionals provided feedback and insight on their organisations' financial wellbeing and retirement programmes, interests and concerns. Click here for the full report.

About Aon

Aon plc (NYSE: AON) is a leading global professional services firm providing a broad range of risk, retirement and health solutions. Our 50,000 colleagues in 120 countries empower results for clients by using proprietary data and analytics to deliver insights that reduce volatility and improve performance.

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Comfort food: Women more likely to admit to overeating, under exercising amid COVID-19 - Brand Spur
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