- Sixty-one percent of U.S. adults report undesired weight changes since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
- Stress, lack of exercise, unhealthy changes in eating habits, and increased alcohol consumption are all contributing factors.
- Experts say making small adjustments to your daily routine can help make big changes for a more healthy lifestyle.
Aside from the serious health concerns associated with COVID-19, you may have heard people make light about gaining “the COVID 19.”
This is a play on the “freshman 15” reference of gaining weight during the first year of college.
But as much as it's become a joke to some, it's rooted in reality.
With the closing of gyms, the complete disruption of our daily lives, and the increase of daily stress, many people have gained weight since the beginning of the pandemic.
In fact, a new American Psychological Association (APA) survey of more than 3,000 people reveals that 61 percent of U.S. adults report undesired weight changes since the COVID-19 outbreak.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), before the pandemic, about 40 percent of people had obesity in the United States.
According to the new APA survey, 2 in 5 of the 3,000 adults surveyed gained more weight than they intended over the last year, at an average of 29 pounds per person. Ten percent said they gained more than 50 pounds.
Weight changes are a common symptom of coping with mental health challenges, according to the APA.
Why do we gain weight during times of emotional struggle?
“In times of stress, we often engage in unhealthy coping mechanisms, for example, overeating,” said Brittany LeMonda, PhD, senior neuropsychologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York. “Many people are 'emotional eaters' and eat comfort food in the context of negative emotions.”
Both experts Healthline spoke with said it's not surprising that people engaged in emotional eating, given that the pandemic has been ongoing for more than a year.
It's been an emotionally charged time for practically everyone.
This, coupled with the closing of gyms and offices as well as physical distancing orders, gives clear impetus for gaining weight.
“I think a lot of people working from home didn't have as much free time as they anticipated. They weren't getting the commute walking that they used to. Without the structure of the day, they weren't going to the gym on the way home — and the gyms were closed anyway,” said Dr. Michael Ford, internist and primary care physician with New York-Presbyterian Medical Group Hudson Valley.
Another contributing factor to weight gain during the pandemic is an increased amount of alcohol consumption.
A December 2020 study showed that 60 percent of U.S. adults reported an increase in drinking alcohol due to the pandemic.
“I can't tell you how many patients told me that they were drinking cocktails every night, which are full of calories,” Ford said. “When everything shut down, many of us looked at it like apocalyptic survival mode. But then [the pandemic] stretched on for months, and we developed bad habits. The weight packed on.”
Ford said that anxiety can often be the cause for an increase in drinking.
He also pointed out the number of prescriptions for anxiety medications has also increased during the pandemic. Many anti-anxiety medications have weight gain as a side effect.
Returning to a healthier lifestyle
With the arrival of spring and daylight saving now in effect, experts say it's the perfect time to reassess our daily habits and get back to leading a more healthy lifestyle.
“Weight gain is common in stressful situations. Once we notice that we have gained weight, we can take steps towards leading a more healthy lifestyle,” LeMonda said.
She suggests identifying the triggers that lead us to overeating, as well as substituting unhealthy foods for healthier options and developing an exercise plan.
“Spring is a time of renewal, so I'm hopeful that people can get outdoors and start exercising,” Ford said.
Ford suggests penciling in exercise two to three times a week to start.
“It's never really a goal until you write it down,” he said. “On Sunday, take a look at the week ahead and write in two or three workouts you're going to do and try to make it a regular thing. You're going to start feeling better right away.”
Another step is to cut back on alcohol. If you've been having a cocktail or glass of wine every night, scaling back could be another way to cut calories.
“Make those things celebratory,” Ford said. “Do it on Friday and Saturday with friends. On school nights we should stay sober and eat good food. You'll be amazed at how quickly you feel better, and then that kicks off a virtuous cycle.”
A great way to stick to your goals is to have a buddy who can help keep you accountable.
“Enlisting a friend who is in the same boat could be a good idea and allow for accountability and joint efforts,” LeMonda said.
However, as you begin taking steps toward a healthier lifestyle, experts say it's important to be kind to yourself.
Remember, this isn't an experience you're going through alone. And it hasn't been easy.
The whole world is coping with the past year. Go easy on yourself, and remind yourself that even small progress is still progress.
“Remember, stress can trigger overeating, so it's important to not stress about the weight gain,” LeMonda said, “but rather put energy and efforts towards developing a healthy and reasonable plan.”