Quarantine weight gain is real. Life in lockdown has disrupted all our lives, creating the perfect setup for putting on pounds. Social media users jokingly refer to it as the “Quarantine 15.”
Study on Quarantine Weight Gain
Researchers who are studying quarantine weight gain say it’s too soon to say for sure how widespread the weight gain really is. William Dietz, MD, PhD, chair of the Sumner M. Redstone Global Center for Prevention and Wellness at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health, says staying indoors means most people are less active, and many are eating more ultra-processed foods than they might otherwise. Add the anxiety that comes with a deadly pandemic, and you’ve got an ideal situation for weight gain, he says.
• In a poll of more than 1,000 U.S. readers of WebMD, nearly half of the women and almost one-quarter of the men said they’d gained weight “due to COVID restrictions.”
• A separate poll of 900 international readers found more than half of men and about a third of women reporting weight gain.
• In the last 30 days, more than half a million Facebook users have engaged with terms around quarantine weight gain, including quarantine 15 and #quarantineweight gain.
For those who already struggled with obesity, gaining weight during the COVID-19 pandemic adds more risk. “Early on, we noticed that all of our patients who were immediately intubated at our institution and others had BMIs over 35,” says Caroline Apovian, MD, director of the Nutrition and Weight Management Center at Boston Medical Center. “And they were younger.” Preliminary research published in The Lancet has also found this connection.
The Quarantine Diet: More Sugar, Carbs, Alcohol
Some data show that people are eating more foods that may contribute to weight gain. Website Lose It! reported a 266% increase in candy eating in the last 2 weeks of March, compared to February, among its 1.4 million monthly active members, along with an increase in eating carb-heavy foods like bread (54%) and noodles (36%). Data provided by WW (formerly Weight Watchers) shows their members are using the app to record they’re using and consuming almost 40% more baking ingredients like flour than they did before the lockdown.
Among WebMD readers, 70% in the U.S. and 35% internationally cited “stress eating” as a cause of their weight gain.
One report showed that sales of alcoholic beverages went up 55% in the early days of the lockdown. And drinking tends to make you gain weight, says Kirkpatrick. First, you’ve got all those empty calories. And then there’s the way it loosens your inhibitions, including those related to eating. “After two glasses of wine with dinner,” she says, “healthy eating goes out the window.” Finally, alcohol messes with your sleep — you may fall asleep quickly, but you probably won’t sleep soundly. “The next day, you can’t stop eating,” she says.
In the WebMD reader polls, 21% in the U.S. and 17% internationally blamed their weight gain on alcohol.
Then there’s our newfound sedentary lifestyle. With gyms and other facilities closed, you’re forced to find your own way to work out. The activity that comes with going to work, even a desk job — getting to your workplace, physically going to meetings, and so on — has disappeared. The pedometer that used to show thousands of steps each day might now show only hundreds. And if you’re a parent, supervising your children’s schooling while working from a carved-out corner of your home, not to mention preparing every single meal, can be exhausting. More than 70% of WebMD readers in the U.S. and internationally reported lack of exercise as a reason for their weight gain.
How to Regain Control
Nobody knows when COVID-19 lockdowns will end for good. So if this is going to be the new normal, how can you rebuild some of the healthy habits that went with the old normal? Here as some suggestions by Kristin Kirkpatrick, RD at the Cleveland Clinic:
• Change the narrative. “Instead of thinking about the ‘Quarantine 15,’ look at this as an opportunity to lose weight,” says Kirkpatrick. “Do you throw your arms up and say, ‘This stinks and I’m going to give up?’ Or do you say, ‘This is a huge opportunity for change, and I’m going to rise to the occasion? I’m going to be healthier and live longer because of what we’re going through now.’”
• Adjust your setup. Get your office out of the kitchen, Kirkpatrick says. “If you must be near food while working, set a schedule for yourself, like you can’t open the fridge before 10. Give yourself the structure you’d have in a normal workday.”
• Focus on easy meals. Even though we’re not going out, this new life feels exhausting. At the end of a long day, it may seem easier to just get takeout. But getting a simple, healthy meal on the table doesn’t have to take a long time or effort. A pot of whole-grain pasta topped with a good-quality jarred sauce can be on the table in less than half an hour. An omelet stuffed with garlicky sautéed mushrooms can be ready even sooner.
• Shop smarter. Stock up on inexpensive staples like canned beans and tomatoes, whole grains, and frozen vegetables. And before you head out, think about what you’d like to eat for the next 2 weeks and write up a list. Include the snacks you want on the list, and stick to it, to avoid comfort-food impulse buys.
• Try meal planning. Living in quarantine means you can’t just run out to the store if you’re missing an ingredient. Instead, look at what you have on hand ahead of time and build meals around it.
• Step outside. You don’t need a daily 6-mile hike with your family to improve your health. “We have studies showing that even 20 minutes in nature reduces cortisol, which can help with eating habits,” says Kirkpatrick. And it doesn’t even have to be 20 minutes. “When you feel like you want to go and just eat the entire fridge, go outside for 10 minutes, go on your deck, go in your front yard, whatever the case may be, but give yourself a diversion from the food.”
• Get some help. If you don’t feel like you can get things under control on your own, a single telemedicine consult with a dietitian might help. “Every approach needs to be individualized,” Kirkpatrick says. “That can really make someone more likely to succeed.”
Above all, Kirkpatrick says, we should assume that some version of our lockdown lifestyle will continue for a while. “I tell my patients to adjust to the current environment in a positive manner so that when we go back to ‘normal,’ be it 3 months or 3 years from now, we emerge healthier.”
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