Pandemic weight gain

Small steps can mitigate the physical and emotional impacts of COVID-19 weight gain.

A scale.

Many college students joke about their "Freshman 15" when referring to a trend of weight gain during the first year of college life. In recent times, some people are seeing this same unintended consequence of the pandemic. Maybe you or someone who know have said it's time to deal with the "COVID 15" -- weight gained in the past year or so. Weight gain during the pandemic is an emergent health concern researchers are now investigating.

According to a recent article in Appetite, researchers found that people reported more emotional eating during the global coronavirus pandemic, especially energy-dense foods like peanut butter, butter, eggs, ice cream, cheese and bacon. Foods with high fat content, especially if consumed too much, can lead to weight gain.

Another contributor to pandemic weight gain seems to be due to less daily physical activity. A 2020 article in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health noted that people reported being less engaged in physical activity than before the pandemic. Emerging research has also found that self-isolating, quarantining, social distancing behaviors and increased screen time are behaviors associated with more loneliness, stress and depression, and researchers recommend increasing physical activity and decreasing screen time to improve mental health.

Pre-pandemic obesity rates in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), were increasing prior to the pandemic, so these trends are particularly concerning. The CDC reports 12 states, including Michigan, have an adult obesity rate of 35% or more. People who are overweight or obese are at risk for a multitude of ailments, including Type II diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease, to mention a few.

Experts recommend some well-known tactics you can take to improve your health and manage your weight better:

  • Adopt healthier eating habits. Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, lean protein and whole grains. You can start with having some fruit with breakfast, add a small salad to lunch and doubling up on veggies at dinner. Have cut up veggies ready for snacking.
  • Fit in physical activity. Get regular physical exercise. You can start with 10 minutes at a time instead of trying to fit it in all at once. Three 10-minute walking breaks each day may be less daunting than one 30-minute session. Stand up to take breaks throughout the day and walk in place.
  • Improve your sleep. To get better sleep, MSU Extension educator Christi Demitz recommends sticking to a scheduled bedtime and wake up time; keeping your bedroom cool, dark and quiet; and avoiding using electronics and drinking alcohol and caffeine before bedtime.

Part of caring for our overall health includes taking care of our mental health. Mental health can affect the ability to make healthy lifestyle changes in our diet, exercise and sleep. For example, if you aren’t getting enough sleep, you may not feel like exercising and you may lean more toward emotional eating to self-soothe. 

There are ways, however, to deal with emotional eating and to improve your relationship with food. Practicing mindful eating is one way. Jan Chozen Bays, pediatrician and mindful eating educator, suggests using some simple steps to begin this. Start by slowing down and taking some deep breaths before you begin to eat. Develop a gentle appreciation of your food. Tune into your own physical hunger cues like a growling tummy. Give yourself time to consider if you are experiencing actual physical hunger or mouth hunger which is emotional eating. Savor and enjoy each bite. Give yourself permission to leave food on your plate when you are full.

Additionally, using healthy coping skills like mindfulness can help when dealing with difficult emotions that may trigger emotional eating. MSU Extension offers many classes to help you deal with everyday stress with mindfulness and anger management. Through these classes and workshops, you can learn mindful techniques such as breathing, eating, walking, dealing with upsetting thoughts, communicating through conflict and forgiveness.

If you have experienced unwanted weight gain during the pandemic, take heart. First, realize you are not alone. Remember that even moderate weight reduction will have health benefits like lowering cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar. Lastly, your risk of developing severe complications due to contracting COVID-19 will be reduced by moderate weight loss. Make a commitment to begin your small steps today.  

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