What is eco-concern and how is it related to eating behaviors and disordered eating?

by Baiyu Qi, MPH

Climate change has been progressively worsening during the past few decades and has had adverse impact on mental health. Many people have experienced distress related to climate crisis, which is known as eco-concern (among other names). Eco-concern has been associated with multiple mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety, and substance use disorders.1 Previous studies have reported that individuals might alter their eating behaviors in response to concerns about climate change, such as eliminating meat and avoiding food waste.2 However, there is no existing tool to comprehensively assess eating-related eco-concern, which hindered us from further investigating its association with general eco-concern and mental health conditions, such as disordered eating. Further, it was unclear whether there were gender differences in levels of eating-related eco-concern.

A recent study conducted by the CEED research team emerged from clinical observations with patients who were more frequently raising eco-concerns and discussing personal changes in shopping and eating behaviors related to those concerns. We filled this research gap by developing a questionnaire to assess eating-related eco-concern and investigated its associations with general eco-concern and with disordered eating.3 The Eating-Related Eco-Concern (EREC) questionnaire includes 10 items addressing eating behaviors related to concerns about the climate crisis (You can read the paper here and download the EREC scale items here). We recruited 224 participants using posters and social media. Participants ranged from age 18 to 89 and most reported being female and White. Participants completed three questionnaires online assessing general eco-concern, eating-related eco-concern, and disordered eating.

Our EREC questionnaire demonstrated good validity in the study sample. We examined whether scores on general eco-concern and eating-related eco-concern differed by gender. Individuals who identified as female reported a significantly higher level of general eco-concern than those who identified as male, but no gender differences were observed in eating-related eco-concern.

We also investigated the relationships among general eco-concern, eating-related eco-concern, and five disordered eating characteristics (i.e., disordered eating global score, restraint, eating concern, weight concern, and shape concern). First, participants with higher levels of general eco-concern also had a higher eating-related eco-concern, indicating that individuals who care and worry about climate change may be more likely to alter their eating behaviors as a personal response to climate crisis. Second, general eco-concern was not significantly related to any disordered eating characteristics. Lastly, participants who had a higher eating-related eco-concern also had higher scores on shape concern and disordered eating global score. We were unable to determine whether participants developed disordered eating due to eating-related eco-concern, or if those who already had disordered eating symptoms were more likely to develop eating-related eco-concern. More research is needed to explore the temporal relationship between eating-related eco-concern and disordered eating.

In summary, the EREC questionnaire is a brief, validated tool to screen for changes in eating -related behaviors secondary to eco-concern. We hope to raise awareness of this important topic within the field of eating disorders and climate change and inform clinical practice. Prevention strategies, such as education about the impact of climate change and eco-concern on disordered eating, eating disorders, and mental health in general, should be incorporated into activities such as climate action clubs at schools or universities. We encourage researchers from around the world to translate this questionnaire into other languages and validate it in more diverse samples.

1.         Trombley, J., S. Chalupka, and L. Anderko, Climate Change and Mental Health. Am J Nurs, 2017. 117(4): p. 44-52.

2.         Sanchez-Sabate, R. and J. Sabate, Consumer Attitudes Towards Environmental Concerns of Meat Consumption: A Systematic Review. Int J Environ Res Public Health, 2019. 16(7).

3.         Qi, B., et al., Development and Validation of an Eating-Related Eco-Concern Questionnaire. Nutrients, 2022. 14(21).