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Did we really gain weight during the pandemic?

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Researchers were intrigued by the question of whether people really gained weight during quarantine, which had been dubbed the "COVID 15" by many. To answer this question, they analyzed the electronic health records of 15 million patients, comparing their weight changes in the year prior to the pandemic to weight changes during the pandemic. The findings revealed that 39% of patients had gained weight, with 27% gaining less than 12.5 pounds and 10% gaining more than 12.5 pounds. Among those who gained weight, 2% had gained over 27.5 pounds.

The Role of Stress in weight gain

The increased stress levels experienced during the pandemic may have contributed to this weight gain. Stress can lead to higher levels of cortisol, a hormone associated with increased consumption of high-fat and high-salt foods. Additionally, the body's ability to metabolize food may slow down during times of stress. High cortisol levels are also linked to an increase in belly fat, which can increase the risk of health problems such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Furthermore, stress can lead to a reduction in lean muscle mass, which in turn can lower metabolic rate and result in burning fewer calories at rest. All of these factors can contribute to weight gain and have negative effects on overall health.

Not everybody put on pounds during quarantine

During times of stress, some individuals may respond by suppressing their appetite and ignoring their hunger cues, resulting in weight loss. According to an analysis of electronic health records, 35% of patients experienced weight loss during the first year of the pandemic, though this was less talked about than weight gain. Multiple factors may have contributed to this weight loss. For example, people may have been more sedentary due to quarantine restrictions, leading to loss of muscle mass and gain of fat (which weighs less than muscle).

However, there may have been healthier reasons for the weight loss, such as individuals prioritizing their health and having more control over their food choices. Cooking at home instead of eating out, for instance, has been linked to weight loss. A 15-year study by the University of Minnesota found that those who ate fast food two or more times a week gained 10 more pounds than those who rarely ate fast food. In another study, women who ate fast food one extra time per week gained an extra 1.6 pounds during a three-year period.

Moreover, some people may have used quarantine as an opportunity to focus on their fitness, nutrition, and sleep, leading to weight loss. Without a commute to work, individuals may have had more time to exercise and prepare healthy meals at home.

Whether you gained or lost weight during quarantine, you are not alone

What's next? For those who gained weight during quarantine, there's an opportunity to adopt healthy habits and follow the six pillars of lifestyle medicine (exercise, healthy eating, sound sleep, social connections, stress resilience, and avoiding risky substance use) to lose weight, improve health, and enhance overall well-being. Here are some tips to prevent gradual weight gain over time, regardless of whether there's a pandemic or not.

Incorporate enjoyable physical activities into your daily routine. Aim to accumulate at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per week, and find a workout buddy to check in with regularly.

Increase your intake of plant-based foods. Vegetables contain phytonutrients that help fight disease, as well as fiber that feeds the microbiome in your gut, which in turn regulates your metabolism and immune system.

Reduce the amount of time you spend sitting. Get up from your chair every hour and move around. If you have diabetes or prediabetes, aim to get up every half hour.

Avoid processed foods as much as possible. Opt for whole foods that don't come in a package or a can.

Experiment with different stress reduction techniques. Try deep breathing exercises, such as 4-7-8 breathing or box breathing, and consider mindfulness movement practices like yoga, tai chi, or qigong. The key is to find strategies that you enjoy and can easily incorporate into your routine.

Caroline Buckee

Caroline Flannigan is an epidemiologist. She is an Associate Professor of Epidemiology and is the Associate Director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics.

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