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Pandemic Weight Gain is Real

UCLA Health interviewed Dr. Dana Hunnes, UCLA Fielding School of Public Health assistant professor of community health sciences, about studies that show many Americans gained more than 20 pounds during one year of COVID-19

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Date: 
Friday, April 2, 2021
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The so-called “Quarantine 15” is real, and for some, it may be closer to 30 – as in pounds gained during one year of the pandemic.

Many Americans knew they’d put on weight with all the stress-baking and stay-at-home shift in routines. But two recent studies show pandemic weight gain has been significant — up to two pounds a month according to a March 2021 JAMA Network study, and more than 30 pounds over 12 months for some people, a recent survey by the American Psychological Association found.

According to the APA survey, conducted in February, six in 10 adults experienced undesired weight changes during the pandemic. For 42% of respondents, that meant additional pounds — an average of 29. The remaining 18% experienced unintended weight loss.

“Some people tend to stress-eat, or mindlessly eat, while stress causes others to lose their appetite,” said Dr. Dana Hunnes, UCLA Fielding School of Public Health assistant professor of community health sciences. “We’ve all been through an extremely stressful year.”

Food insecurity and job losses may have led to unintended dietary changes as some ingredients, such as fresh produce, became less accessible or affordable, Hunnes said. Gym closures and working from home may have contributed to overeating or mindless snacking. And that homemade-sourdough trend early in the pandemic probably didn’t help.

Men reported an average weight gain of 37 pounds and women an average of 22 additional pounds in the APA survey, which included 3,013 participants. Half of all parents and essential workers who responded said they’d put on weight during the pandemic — an average of 36 to 38 pounds.

Excess weight and obesity can lead to health problems including diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure, Hunnes said: “Having a higher body-mass index (BMI) and having more fat around the mid-section increases the risk for all kinds of chronic diseases.”

The U.S. has been facing growing obesity rates for the past several decades. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the prevalence of obesity — defined as a BMI of 30 or higher — increased from 30.5% in 2000 to 42.4% in 2018.

BMI is a measure of a person’s body fat, based on height and weight.

“More than two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese, so a lot of people are struggling with weight and weight loss to begin with,” Hunnes said. “I think there’s potential for added stress and added discouraging feelings of ‘I spent all this time and now I weigh more than I did before’ the pandemic. It could be very difficult for people to feel like they have control over the issue, especially when there's still so many unknowns right now.”

The JAMA Network study analyzed data gathered from February to June of 2020 from 269 participants who shared weight measurements from Bluetooth-enabled scales. The authors noted that most of the participants had been losing weight before shelter-in-place orders were issued in March. After that point, they gained more than a half-pound every 10 days, the study found.

An earlier study in the Annals of Internal Medicine also found that daily step counts went down and sedentary behaviors increased during the pandemic.

Though gyms are reopening and team sports are resuming across southern California, it will take more than exercise to get rid of pandemic pounds, Hunnes said.

“When it comes to weight, food is about 90% of the equation and 10% is exercise,” she said. “That’s because it’s so easy to out-eat your exercise. You might go for a five-mile run and burn 400 calories, then come home and drink that in a shake.”

Exercise is still critical, however, for overall fitness and mental health.

“You can feel good about yourself with exercise, even if you haven't necessarily lost weight yet,” Hunnes said. “You can start to change the way your body is reacting — even if you don’t necessarily see it on the scale yet — and that can cascade into bigger changes long term and better mental health.”

It’s important to be self-compassionate about pandemic weight gain, she adds: “Being hard on yourself over it isn't going to help.”

Tips to help with weight loss

Think about adding healthy foods to your diet, rather than focusing on eating less, Hunnes said. Opt for natural, unprocessed foods, such as fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains. An easy way to keep health food top of mind is to keep fruits and vegetables at eye level in the fridge or in an easy-to-grab-from bowl on the kitchen table.

“Think about it as eating more of the good stuff, the healthy stuff, because nobody wants to feel hungry,” she said. “That is just not a fun feeling during the day when you're already feeling stressed because now there's another change happening in your life.”

Making a list of things within your control you can do to boost health, then gradually adding those things to your daily life, can engender feelings of self-efficacy, Hunnes said. For instance, if you know you’ll be having breakfast at home each day, consider starting there with healthier choices. After a few mornings fueled by a healthy breakfast, perhaps consider adding a short afternoon walk.

“Map out the things you can control that are not too overwhelming, rather than trying to knock out too much at one time,” she said. “When you say, ‘I need to lose 20 pounds,’ it feels unattainable. Whereas if you map out little goals that you can do on a daily basis and you’re chiseling away, that seems much more doable. It also gives you the opportunity to set yourself up for little positive reinforcements every day.”

Consider forming SMART goals, she says, which are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-based. As you achieve each incremental SMART goal, you’ll have the confidence and self-knowledge to pursue others.

“It’s important to start off slowly, because if you feel self-efficacious and positive emotions from that, it makes you want to build on it,” Hunnes said.

And forget crash dieting, she adds. Though you may be panicked that your work clothes have gotten uncomfortably snug, a steady approach to weight loss is healthiest and most sustainable.

“Crash diets are not the answer for weight gain ever,” she said. “Especially not when it’s been weight gain associated with stress, because crash diets can stress a lot of people out, too. You’ll just feel cranky and probably hungry. But real food can be soothing to the soul.”

by Sandy Cohen