Climate Change Concerns & Eating Behaviors | Summary
***Please note this episode contains conversations on eating disorders, anxiety, and depression. Some people food choices based on carbon footprint, according to Melissa Munn-Chernoff, assistant professor for the Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders (CEED) at UNC-Chapel Hill. After UNC CEED Founding Director Cynthia Bulik approached Munn-Chernoff about a study to better understand the correlation between climate change concerns and mental health, the group began its Eco-Concern & Eating Behaviors Research Study. On this episode, we hear from Munn-Chernoff and two students — Baiyu Qi (UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health) and Emily Bulik-Sullivan (UNC School of Medicine).
Listen to the full episode.
Abigail Brewer (Host): Innovation and discovery have flourished at Carolina since its founding. Centuries later, these two things continue to play a major role in creating a sustainable campus. Here on the Sustainable Carolina Podcast, we talk with the Tar Heels about the intertwined nature of sustainability. I’m Abigail Brewer, communications and engagement specialist for Sustainable Carolina. Please not that this episode contains discussions around anxiety, depression, and eating disorders.
We see how climate change is affecting the world around us. It’s on our social media feeds and our news apps, and sometimes – it’s right outside our own windows. It’s normal for increasing temperatures, natural disasters, and drought conditions to evoke some type of emotional response from all of us living here on Earth. But sometimes, stress around our changing climate impacts our mental health. Today I’m joined by three members of the UNC Eco-Concern & Eating Behaviors Research Study team, out of the UNC Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders (CEED).
Let’s go ahead and introduce everyone, starting with Melissa Munn-Chernoff, assistant professor and director of research training at UNC CEED in the School of Medicine’s department of psychiatry. Melissa, can you talk about your work, research interests, and what drew you to this project?
Melissa Munn-Chernoff: First of all, I would like to thank you, Abigail, for allowing us to have the opportunity to discuss our current research project related to climate change and mental health. My colleagues and I are really excited to be here today and to represent our study team!
My main program of research is on understanding risk factors and correlates of eating disorders, which includes both genetic and environmental factors. I am also interested in how eating disorders are related to other mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety, and substance use. Our current project, the Eco-Concern & Eating Behaviors Research Study, is really incorporating the environmental component of this research and expanding on a novel area in the field.
Dr. Cynthia Bulik, founding director of UNC CEED and co-principal investigator, and I started this study for a few reasons. First, we have seen that many individuals, especially adolescents and young adults, are particularly impacted by climate change and its effect on mental health. As they witness raging fires, increasing temperatures, devastating floods and hurricanes, and melting ice sheets, these individuals question if the future world will be habitable for them, leading some to despair and many who have become steadfast, and even obsessed, in their drive to create individual change. Some individuals are even patrolling friends and families for eco-destructive behaviors, making food choices based on carbon footprint, and obsessing about the impact every decision they make has on the future of the planet. Prior studies have also indicated that there is a relation between climate change concerns and specific mental health symptoms, such as depression, anxiety, and substance use. However, to the best of our knowledge, no study had examined the relation between climate change concerns and eating behaviors. Hence, we started the Eco-Concern & Eating Behaviors Research Study.
Abigail (host): I remember seeing research from Pew Center last year that showed Millennials and young adults in Generation Z are more engaged with the issue of climate change and more likely to take action, so that makes sense that some of these patients with mental health symptoms related to climate change are in that adolescent/young adult demographic.
And because this is largely a student-led project, let’s introduce our two students. Baiyu Qi is a Ph.D. student at UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. Emily Bulik-Sullivan is an M.D./Ph.D. student at the UNC School of Medicine. Hi to both of you and thanks for joining us today. Can you tell us a little about your background and how this project came to be?
Baiyu Qi: Sure! Thanks for having us. I’m a rising 3rd year Ph.D .student at the epidemiology department. I’ve been involved in eating disorder research at CEED since 2019. My own research mainly focuses on the genetics of eating disorders and their comorbidities such as cardiometabolic traits, but I’m also generally interested in different risk factors of eating disorders in diverse populations. When Melissa was writing the grant proposal for this study I found it really interesting, so I said I wanted to help.
Emily Bulik-Sullivan: Agreed – thank you for having us! I’m a student in UNC’s joint M.D./Ph.D. program currently doing my Ph.D. During my preclinical medical school years, I was involved in trying to incorporate more “environmental health” content into UNC’s med school curriculum. I also co-founded a medical student organization called CLEAN UNC SOM, which is a group dedicated to promoting awareness about the impacts of climate change and other environmental factors on human health. I’m less involved in eating disorders research, but I got involved with this study to provide some climate and health background, though I’m certainly not an environmental health expert!
Abigail (host): It’s great to have both of you with us – it will be interesting to hear how your different backgrounds contribute to this study. In the sustainability world, eco-anxiety is quickly becoming a buzzword. Can you explain this concept and who it’s most likely to affect?
Baiyu: Research about the effects of climate change on mental health is rapidly proliferating, but right now it’s still relatively young. And even though “eco-anxiety” is becoming a popular term, anxiety is just one of a broad array of emotions that people may feel about the climate crisis. Other negative emotions people may experience related to the climate crisis include “eco-grief,” or eco- fear or anger or sadness. Some people collectively describe these as “eco-emotions”; for the narrower subset of emotions we’re investigating in our study, we’re using the term “eco-concern.”
These emotions related to the climate crisis can theoretically affect anyone. We do know from some previous studies that younger people, people who are very knowledgeable about climate issues, and people who live in places that experience extreme weather events are all more likely to experience eco-concern. Some other research has found that consuming lots of news or content about climate issues may also exacerbate these emotions, which I imagine many people may have experienced anecdotally.
Abigail (host): Eco-emotions – I like that term. And like any emotion, how you feel about the environment can change at any given time – depending on weather events, season, and things like that.
When I first contacted you all about this research, I mentioned that my colleague – our sustainability analyst – and I were interested in learning more about this topic. Part of the reason for that is a conversation we had together after attending Appalachian State University’s Energy Summit. On the car ride home, we reflected on the quality of the meals – all of which were vegetarian. That conversation evolved into one on people who actively avoid meat because of its greenhouse gas emissions – a recent study out of UC Berkeley estimated that animal agriculture accounts for about 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions. And there are also people who avoid purchasing food with plastic packaging or limit food purchasing for fear of being wasteful. Can you talk a little bit about when these types of behaviors might begin to be concerning and might cue a medical practitioner into disordered eating patterns?
Melissa: Sure! Unfortunately, eco-anxiety (or what we call eco-concerns) is now being seen in treatment centers, where individuals who already experience disordered eating further restrict their intake based on the ecological impact of food choices. These behaviors can contribute to eating disorders, exacerbate an existing illness, hinder recovery, and complicate treatment by further restricting the foods individuals view as acceptable in their recovery. Through this study, we will delve deeper into understanding how national and global climate issues have become intertwined with disordered eating so that we may better serve individuals at high-risk for disordered eating and raise awareness of this new facet of eating disorders.
Abigail (host): And are there certain segments of communities that you’re concerned with? Do you have an idea of what factors might play a role of eco-anxiety and development of eating disorders?
Emily: As your listeners probably know, it is very well established that the climate crisis impacts the health of different groups of people in distinct and inequitable ways, which is why the concept of climate justice exists. But given the paucity of research about how climate change impacts people’s eating behaviors, we’re really interested in using this study to figure out the answer to your questions.
Individually, there has been an enormous amount of research into what factors influence the development of eating disorders – including a huge amount done here at UNC. And as we already discussed, a smaller amount of research exists looking at the factors that influence the development of eco-anxiety and other eco-emotions. But we really don’t yet know in any formal, quantitative way what factors might cause those two phenomena to co-occur and result in the clinical picture that Melissa described earlier, where concerns about the environment are woven into disordered eating patterns.
Eco-Concern Study Team’s Survey
Abigail (host): So I take it that’s where the survey comes in. Let’s get into the survey. I came across the survey online. Again, my colleague and I were intrigued. We both took it. Can you talk about how inclusive the inclusion criteria is and why you made that decision?
Baiyu: This is a great question. Young adults have been at the forefront of bringing awareness about climate change and health. However, we know that these concerns do not end in young adulthood. To gain a greater understanding of how concerns about climate change, both general and those specific to eating, were related to eating behaviors, we wanted to include all individuals who were at least 18 years old.
So far we’ve recruited a sample with a wide age range, where some participants are in their 80s, which is pretty cool. If we could recruit more participants and have a bigger sample, we will be able to test if eco-concern differs across age groups, which can help us further identify individuals who have higher risks. It will also help us to see how eco-concerns are associated with eating behaviors across multiple ages.
Abigail (host): When I was in grad school, I had peers who chose to create surveys as part of their thesis projects. It’s kind of an art form, drafting survey questions, and I think this is especially true when it comes to writing questions involving sensitive topics like anxiety, depression, and eating disorders. Can you describe the process for drafting questions?
Emily: It was an interesting process! We decided what questions we wanted to ask in this questionnaire during a series of meetings attended by both clinicians with expertise treating eating disorders and people with more environmental health background. In addition to asking general demographic questions, we knew that we needed to use established measures to assess whether respondents have any eating disorder features and to gauge how they feel about climate change. For the latter, we used the ten-item Climate Change Worry Scale published by Alan Stewart in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health in 2021.
Coming up with the new questions that merged those two arenas was the interesting part. We wrote ten, and they cover all kinds of food- and climate-related topics, such as avoiding meat and other animal products, trying to eat only organic food, avoiding excessive packaging, et cetera. A lot of these questions were driven by what the clinicians in the room had heard from their patients.
Abigail (host): Is there anything you’re anticipating in your initial findings? When will you be able to look at some of this preliminary data?
Baiyu: These are great questions. We are in the early stages of looking at preliminary data, so I cannot tell you yet what we’ve found. However, based on some prior studies, we anticipate having three overarching themes underlying the data.
First, we expect that individuals who have a higher level of general eco-concern will also have a higher level of eating-specific eco-concern, as individuals who are generally worried about climate change might be more likely to change their eating behaviors due to eco-concern.
We also expect to see significant associations between eco-concern, especially eating-related eco-concern, with disordered eating, which means that participants who have higher levels of disordered eating will also have higher scores for eating-related eco-concern. One reason is that our scale should capture some sort of disordered eating behaviors. Another reason is that some previous studies have found that certain types of diet, such as a vegetarian diet, were associated with disordered eating. Although not everyone on a vegetarian diet does so out of eco-concern, we think we’ll still see a correlation between eco-concern and disordered eating.
Lastly, we anticipate that female participants will have a higher score on eating-related eco-concern than male participants. This is based on findings from the original climate change worry scale paper, where researchers found that female participants showed higher climate change worry scores than males. One thing to note is that so far, ~75% of our sample is female, which may indicate that women show more interest in this topic than men. Thus, they may be more willing to take this survey.
Currently, we’re still working on data collection and analysis and preparing the results for dissemination to the scientific and general communities, but hopefully we will have a manuscript published in the coming months. We would be happy to share our final results with your listeners then.
Abigail (host): In the long-term, how do you hope these results benefit the fields of sustainability and medicine?
Emily: We are all acutely aware that conducting this research is not going to solve the climate crisis. But I think it will contribute to the important and quickly growing pool of knowledge about how climate change impacts human health, both mental and physical. I also think it’s a beautiful example of how pretty much anyone with expertise in a particular non-climate topic can incorporate climate change into their research program. CEED is a center of excellence for eating disorders, not for climate change research – but despite that, the folks at CEED have found a very legitimate and important topic to research that blends their expertise with the public health crisis that climate change poses.
We also hope that the results of this work will be helpful to other researchers and clinicians who are seeing these issues in their daily work, and that it might foster new, related projects looking into how we can help people who are experiencing both eco-concern and eating disorders.
Abigail (host): One of the things I especially liked about delivery of the survey was the blog post from UNC CEED, which reads, “As the world continues to warm, the CEED research team hopes to understand more about climate concerns in youth and adults and explore ways to funnel those concerns into action and agency rather than powerlessness and despair.” Why is it that some people seem to be more resilient than others to the feelings of powerlessness that come with climate change?
Melissa: That is a great question and one we do not know the direct answer to right now. However, based on what we know about behavior and mental health, it is likely due to a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Even if someone may be at a high genetic risk for certain mental health issues, their engagement with family, friends, peers, and organizations that are understanding of their beliefs about climate change and how that may influence their mental well-being is critical.
It’s important to note that there are resources available here at UNC, such as Nature Rx through CAPS, that can help manage any concerns one may have about climate change and mental health. Having a good support system in place is important for overall well-being and can assist in reducing feelings of powerlessness that may come with climate change.
Abigail (host): Are there things we can be doing as a community to make sure those who need support have access to it?
Emily Response: In terms of things we can do as a community, I think anyone with any knowledge about the climate crisis would agree that there are definitely more things that humans can and should be doing. Anecdotally, I think many people who feel eco-anxiety or other eco-emotions benefit from taking action and feeling like they’re helping to tackle the problem, even in a small, local way. Apart from that, engaging in conversations with each other about these issues and spreading awareness about the resources that are available to folks who might need support are the most important things we can do.
Abigail (host): And for those interested in participating in this research, where can they find the survey? How long does it take to complete?
Baiyu: It’s very easy. Participants can visit UNC CEED twitter account at @uncceed, or our blog website at uncexchanges.org, to find the survey link. Participants can also email us at email@example.com to receive the link to the study. It usually takes 10-15 minutes to finish, so it’s quite short.
Abigail (host): I’ll provide the link to the eco-concern survey in the show notes. As a reminder, individuals who are 18 or older can complete the study’s survey. Thank you again for being here on the Sustainable Carolina Podcast, Melissa, Baiyu, and Emily. Hopefully, this episode shed some light on eco-concern. It certainly takes an interdisciplinary approach to understand the relationship between climate change and mental health. As our world continues to experience a changing climate, it will certainly be an important issue to address. Join us next month for another episode of the Sustainable Carolina Podcast.
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