Six Common Culprits For Pandemic Weight Gain

Tips and tricks to stop those pandemic pounds (and kilos) from piling up.

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Have you been avoiding stepping on the scale, or donning your old jeans? You’re in good company. Many of us are struggling to flatten our own pandemic curve — on measured in pounds (or kilos).

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.” Around a third of respondents gained a fiver, while a fifth (21%) qualified for the playfully dubbed “quarantine fifteen” or “COVID nineteen”. A poll of 900 international readers found similar results — more than half of men and about a third of women reported weight gain.

Why are we gaining weight?

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Pandemic life has created a perfect storm for non-essential eating (eating beyond our physiological needs), by changing our food environment, our emotions, and our mindset. Unsurprisingly, this extra eating is showing up on the scale.

Diet or exercise? This article focuses on the kitchen, because this is where we tend to get the biggest bang for our buck with weight management. While I’m a huge advocate of the mental health and disease prevention benefits of exercise, the weight loss benefits of exercise tend to be modest and inconsistent, even with a substantial investment. We’ll dig more deeply into this surprising finding soon!

The biggest change to our food environment is the additional time at home. Whether we’re feeding ourselves, the kids, ourselves, or our spouse, we are spending more time in the kitchen than ever. Life has become a twenty-four hour buffet, tailored to our preferences.

Overwhelmingly, we are feeling more stressed. Stress is a well-known risk factor for obesity, and is driven by multiple mechanisms that all point in the same direction. Indeed, ~ 70% of US survey respondents reported engaging in stress-eating.

Our short-term “crisis mode” mindset exacerbates the problem, as it impacts our restraint. Many of us relaxed our healthy habits and splurged on more treats, either because they helped us cope, or because we felt we deserved a reward for getting through another day.

Others figured that we were doomed and we might as well splurge. As told by one vulnerable family member:

“I bought whole cakes to eat by myself because I figured I was going to die and might as well treat myself!”

At this point, it’s clear that pandemic life is more than a short-term crisis, it’s a new normal. If you want to stop the pandemic pounds from piling up, start here.

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Setting the Stage

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Step 1: Adjust your mindset and prepare yourself for change.

Our mindset permeates all of our decisions. A simple shift from “screw it, I just need to survive”, to “I need to find a sustainable, healthy way to live” can go a long way.

As you contemplate making this shift, be aware that making changes is rarely effortless. The strategies below can make things easier, but you need to be prepared for some mental and emotional work. If you’re in the midst of a crisis, such as a job loss, or loss of a family member, you may not be ready, yet.

Those who successfully maintain weight loss tend to practice high levels of dietary restraint, as described by the National Weight Loss Registry. If it feels like work not to gain weight, know that this is normal.

Step 2: Set your goals.

To help spur yourself into action, do a reality check. Get on the scale. Write down the number. While you’re at it, try on those pre-pandemic pants. Don’t beat yourself up for the weight gain. You’re only human, and you were in survival mode, with biology working against you.

Now, set your goals. How much weight do you want to lose? If you’re only up a few pounds (or kilos), it’s likely that one or two small changes will move the needle. If things are up a lot, expect to have to layer in a few strategies to get back to baseline.

In addition, if you are already aware of specific home eating habits that you don’t serve you well, go ahead and layer in some action-oriented goals (e.g. “I want to kick my bedtime treat habit”).

To boost your odds of success, share you goals with somebody, or at least write them down. Better yet, find a friend or family member to join you in on this journey. I bet it won’t be hard to find someone else looking to reverse their pandemic pounds (kilos).

With your goals in hand, it’s time to identify your pitfalls and try different solutions.

Let’s dig in!

Common Pandemic Pitfalls and Solutions

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1. Happy hour

I love a good happy hour, but when this special event starts to be a near daily occurrence, the extra weight can come on very quickly. A few drinks plus a few munchies can easily add up to 500 calories, about a quarter of a day’s calories. You may even decide to indulge more, not less, at dinner that night because of the “anything goes” mentality that comes with a few drinks.

Solutions: Make happy hour a scheduled, special event, rather than a given, and lighten things up as best as possible.

  • Dial back the calorie excess by choosing lower calorie drinks and sticking to 1–2 max. Alternate alcoholic drinks with sparkling water, infused waters, and iced teas.
  • Serve, and choose, more of the lighter snacks (like fruits and veggies) and less of the addictive, calorie-dense stuff (like chips).
  • Plan on a much lighter dinner to balance things out, but be realistic.

Mea Culpa! Reflecting on my own pandemic scale creep, this one stands out as low hanging fruit to get back in line. The extra weekly drinks and the lax attitude that followed pack a punch.

2. Snacking

We all eat for many reasons other than hunger — to be social, to beat boredom, or for a pleasure hit. Snacking is only problematic from a weight management perspective when it pushes your food intake beyond what you already need.

The rise of snacking at home makes perfect sense. Food is constantly available, and often in your face. Furthermore, many of us are experiencing feelings that often promotes overeating — stress, boredom, depression. It’s extremely common to turn to food to help cope with these feelings.

Stress eating science: According to this 2019 systematic review, “Stress, depression and sadness consistently elicited [unhealthy], such as increased food intake or poor nutritional food choices.”

Solutions: Mix and match strategies that keep you out of the kitchen, clean up your food environment, and meet your needs in non-food ways.

  • One of the best ways to reduce snacking is to outsmart yourself at the grocery store. You know the foods that call your name when you’re not hungry. You can always head out to get one for an occasional treat.
  • Stick to official kitchen hours for the whole family and enforce with a “kitchen closed” sign. I tried this and it really helped! Brushing teeth after meals can also help.
  • Know your snacky times of day, and choose those times to get out of the house. My evening walks are a double-win as they keep me from snacking.
  • Situate your home office (desk) far away from the kitchen.
  • Clean up your food environment. Keep counters clear of snack foods. Put the most inviting snacks in basement. Keep pre-cut veggies handy.
  • Ask yourself why you are feeling the urge to snack. Are you actually hungry? Make a list of non-food ways to meet your needs, like a glass of infused water, a walk, a phone call, a bath, or a nap.

3. Kid food / leftovers

It’s so easy to just reach over gobble up those last few bites on your child’s plate. You don’t want to waste it, right? Yet, it doesn’t take many crusts to cobble together a full pieces of bread. With a few kids and a few meals, you could easily end up eating a whole extra meal without realizing it.

Solution: Change your mindset — your body isn’t a trash can. If you can’t stand to throw food out, find a way to make sure that the leftovers “count”.

  • Consider making a simple rule that you never touch your kids’ leftovers. It’s okay to put them in the compost.
  • To make use of leftovers without adding an extra meal, weave them, consciously, into your meals. Stash all the little bits of leftovers throughout the day in a container in the fridge, then get creative at the end of the day. Chances are, you’ll be shocked at how much is there is! I’ve never tried this but I bet it could get interesting :)

4. Baking

Any food, no matter how healthy, can cause weight gain when consumed beyond your body’s energy needs. This includes my wholesome whole-wheat “Disappearing banana bread” and black-bean brownies.

Solution: Share the goodness!

  • As soon as you finish baking, portion out a single serving for everyone in your family, and give the rest to a neighbour. This can readily be done in a contactless way with gloves, or spatulas.
  • Pro tip: If you’re prone to scarfing the whole loaf before it gets out the door, outsmart yourself by telling that neighbour in advance that you’ll be delivering something later!

5. Larger meals

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Eating at home is a bit like eating at a personalized buffet. We are faced with a wide variety of choices, including many of our favourites, without the help of pre-portioned servings. In this context, it’s all too easy to pile up your plate a little higher than you need, or go back for more when you’re already full, just because it’s there and it tastes good.

According to this 2014 research paper entitled “Variety, Palatability, and Obesity”:

“There is a robust effect of food palatability [translation: sweet, salty, and / or fatty foods] and variety on short-term food intake, and increased variety and palatability can cause weight gain in animal models.”

In addition, extra time for cooking may translate to larger, more elaborate, larger meals. Saturday pancakes are one thing, but all week is a different story… As told by one girlfriend:

“I used to have a quick bowl of oatmeal for breakfast and salad at work for lunch, now my hubby is making cooked breakfast and a hearty lunch. I eat them but it’s not what my body craves!”.

Solution: Revert to your pre-pandemic go-to meals.

  • Re-institute the simple breakfasts and lunches that used to meet your needs just fine. You may even want to try packing a lunchbox and eating it at home!
  • Plate your meals and stick to a single serving.

6. Spouse and housemate influences

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Eating socially is a wonderful thing, but can easily be a recipe for overeating.

In households with multiple eating schedules, it can be tempting to join in whenever anyone else is eating. On top of that, whoever is the most decadent eater, can unknowingly (or knowingly) encourage others to join them. “Who’s in for ice cream?!”.

Furthermore, if the one doing the cooking is not on the same page in terms of healthy eating habits, things can get dicey — especially during lockdown life.

Spousal influences, and home-cooking can go both ways! My hubby is one of the few who lost a few extra pounds, when he traded in airplane and restaurant dinners for home-cooked veggie-centric meals.

Solutions: Have an honest, open dialogue with household members about your healthy habit goals, and the way in which your eating habits impact each others. Odds are good that you’ll be able foster understanding and support — and possibly some partners on your journey to change your habits.

Closing Thoughts

Pandemic weight gain happens to the best of us. It makes perfect sense that we have engaged in non-hunger eating when thrust into a buffet environment during a stressful time, one that we viewed as short-lived.

The solutions presented here use three levers to help mitigate overeating: your mindset, your food environment, and your decision-making (strategic use of rules). While these general strategies are backed by science, your best specific solution is always personal. I’d love to hear from you about what worked for you.

Lastly, I wanted to highlight a bit of a silver lining. Spending so much time eating at home is a golden opportunity to understand and improve our at-home eating habits — for good. Any positive changes you make will continue to serve you even when COVID is finally gone.

As stated by one pandemic warrior, who gained the quarantine fifteen while juggling a full time job and three kids at home:

“I no longer have the structure of work as a crutch to help me eat well five days a week. I’m forced to confront my at-home eating habits.”

About Me

I am formally trained in human genetics (PhD) and spent the first decade of my career working in cancer research, drug development, and personalized medicine. I love being active, eating veggies, playing games, and talking nerdy.

My new career chapter is dedicated to empowering others to make well-informed healthy choices that they truly enjoy.

See more of my work, including articles, videos, podcasts, and healthy recipes at: https://FueledbyScience.com

Scientist (PhD Genetics @Stanford) * Mother * Passionate about science-based healthy choices * Lifelong learner * Founder: Fueled by Science

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