August 20, 2021
You may have heard phrases like "gaining the quarantine 15" or "the COVID-19," which refer to the weight gain some people experienced starting in lockdown, when gyms closed and some people feared leaving their house, even for a walk, during a very uncertain time. For those who want to lose the weight, doing so while we are still coping with a pandemic can be difficult.
Samantha walked into my office in the winter of 2019, before the pandemic, after being referred by Dr. Matthew Cohen, a gastroenterology and hepatology specialist at Jefferson Health. She was recently diagnosed with metabolic syndrome which included fatty liver disease, high cholesterol and prediabetes. She was 250 pounds.
Samantha anxiously stated, "I am 26 years old, please help me lose weight. I am too young for these conditions. I do not want weight loss surgery, and I am looking for diet that will help me lose weight without restricting myself."
Once lockdown hit, Samantha knew reaching her goals would be that much harder, as she wasn't alone in this struggle. Over 40% of Americans said they've gained undesired weight since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the American Psychological Association's annual "Stress in America" report. Among those who reported undesired weight gain, the average gain was 29 pounds. Roughly 50% of those who reported undesired weight gain said they had gained more than 15 pounds, and 10% said they had gained more than 50 pounds. This is six times more weight than the average holiday weight gain.
Samantha beat those odds by losing 70 pounds during the pandemic by exercising and following a balanced meal plan provided by a registered dietitian.
I recently caught up with Samantha on her weight loss journey and the ways she's maintaining her healthy lifestyle.
Emily Rubin: When did your weight become an issue?
Samantha: I did not think that my weight was an issue until I started having some really problematic stomach issues. It felt like everything I ate was against me so I saw a GI doctor who really put it into the perspective of what a problem my weight was – that was December of 2019.
ER: What was your diet like then?
S: I was following a lactose-free diet for my lactose intolerance and then started a gluten-free diet for my GI symptoms, hoping for weight loss. I also tried a ton of "fad diets" but nothing really worked for me. I definitely did not eat well; I had no real concept of a balanced diet — just what foods I needed to avoid so I didn't have horrible stomach pains.
ER: What were your previous diet and exercise attempts?
S: I did try a gluten-free diet and was completely unsuccessful — most gluten-free foods tasted horrible to me or I couldn't have due to a peanut allergy. I tried the Keto diet but could never make the fat content because the idea of putting butter in my coffee seemed gross to me. I always thought I was being active being a therapist for children with autism. I spent most of my days running around with them so why bother exercising? Plus, I would try to work extra hours a few days a week, so it did not leave a lot of time for other activities. I did do some Zumba with friends, but life got in the way, so I stopped after about two months.
ER: What was your light bulb moment that pushed you to lose weight?
S: I was sitting in my GI doctor's office and they were telling me about fatty liver disease and a genetic disease my grandfather had (alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency) which puts me at a higher risk for developing advanced liver disease. A few months later my dad had gastric bypass and told me how much happier he was and how much better he felt. Combined, both of these events made me really change how I took care of myself because I know you only get one body.
ER: How much did you lose and how long did it take?
S: I have lost around 70 pounds over the past year, when there was little access to the gym and grocery stores were limited. I had to shop online to find some of my healthier meal options and take advantage of exercising outside when the gyms were closed.
ER: Did your weight plateau at any point?
S: I don't feel like my weight has really plateaued at any point but instead has fluctuated due to a variety of factors. When COVID first happened, I was really aggressive with working out due to the boredom of working from home but wasn't really losing as much as before because of my limited access to proper gym equipment. Once I was able to access better equipment and started completing more strength-based exercises, my weight loss took off. Even though my number on the scale may not have budged in the last few months, I'm still dropping clothing sizes and inches around my body that I could never have even imagined.
S: I went into this thinking if I can lose 20 pounds that would be cool. Instead, I have made an entire goal of creating a healthy lifestyle for myself. This is a lifelong goal I want to keep pursuing.
ER: What are your diet and exercise now?
S: My diet has changed a lot. I still am focused on balanced eating and using protein and veggies to fill myself instead of carbs and sugars. I am much more mindful of labels and ingredients and what is going into my body. I exercise about four to five times a week, I had to cut back when adjusting to a full in-person work schedule. I use a lot of yoga, weight lifting, cardio, and strength-based workouts.
ER: How has working with a dietitian help you meet your goal?
S: Working with you has helped me develop a new appreciation for food by sharing alternatives for my food allergies, snack suggestions to keep me full and satisfied and new recipes to inspire my cooking. Some of my favorite meals have been Greek chicken bowls, protein pancakes, anything I can make with spaghetti squash, pumpkin soup and Shrimp Pad Thai with almond sauce and cauliflower rice.
ER: Do you feel like you are depriving yourself?
S: Never! I used to feel guilty about eating certain foods and used to feel bad about indulging myself but that has changed. I enjoy the snacks and desserts I eat now when I have craving. My stomach doesn't hurt and I'm not incredibly bloated when I eat better food choices. My absolute favorite sweet treat right now is your high protein devil's food cake recipe.
ER: How did COVID-19 impact your weight loss success?
S: I feel as if it made my weight loss even more successful! I took the time I spent at home to work on deficits, build my strength and learn new techniques. I fell in love with working out, used it as my outlet for everything. I knew I couldn't leave the house due to COVID but at least I could go outside for a walk, take my weights outside and workout. It was the healthiest getaway I could get. Then my love for riding a bike started, my ability to run was getting better, and I was going on even longer walks exploring parts of my neighborhood that I haven't in years. COVID-19 made my weight loss so successful because I was able to focus on myself in a way that I haven't in years.
ER: What keeps you motivated to continue this journey?
S: One of the biggest things that keep me motivated are the results I'm seeing and how I am feeling. I have a huge amount of newfound energy. I am fitting into clothes that I could have never dreamed of wearing before. I love watching myself getting stronger, seeing the muscles develop in my arms and back that I didn't even know I had. It feels really amazing.
ER: Is there anything you struggle with staying on track?
S: I'm not always the best with tracking my food, especially after going back to work fulltime. Sometimes at the end of the day, I'm just too tired!
ER: How has your weight loss affected your relationships?
S: I think my weight loss has been a positive change in my relationships. I made an amazing friend at the first gym I worked out at and we support each other in working out and keeping each other accountable. I have also had a few friends tell me that my weightlessness has inspired them to follow their own fitness/healthy lifestyle journeys.
ER: Who are your biggest supporters?
S: I think my biggest supporters are my boyfriend and now fiancée Scott, my best friend Alicia, my friend Britt and my friend Miranda. No matter what, they have really helped me through this whole journey. Whether I'm stuck on what to make for dinner or am just looking for someone to talk about workouts with – they are there.
ER: What are your biggest weight loss or exercise accomplishments — something that you could never do before?
S: One of my biggest accomplishments is that I can do a pull-up! I never had upper body strength like that before. I'm also really proud of my ability to deadlift and squat, I never knew how strong I could be. I think another accomplishment for me is just the healthy relationship I have developed with food. There is no more guilt for eating something "unhealthy."
ER: What is your long-term goal?
S: My long-term goal is just to maintain this lifestyle. Instead of it being something I have to do, it's something I want to do. Exercise is a coping skill and cooking is my favorite way to express myself.
A perfectly healthy, high-protein and low-sugar alternative to devil's food cake.
•1 scoop chocolate protein powder
•1 tbsp wholegrain pancake mix – (optional gluten free)
•2 tbsp granulated sweetener of choice
•3 tsp baking powder
•1-2 tbsp cocoa powder, adjust to desired chocolate content
•1 large egg
•1/4 cup milk of choice - skim milk or almond milk
•In a mixing bowl, combine the protein powder, pancake mix, baking powder, granulated sweetener and cocoa powder and mix well.
•In a separate bowl, whisk the egg with the milk and pour into the dry mixture and mix until fully incorporated.
•Microwave for 60 seconds and remove from microwave and enjoy immediately.
Thanks to my twin boys for helping to create a delicious treat!!
Emily Rubin, RD, LDN, is a registered Dietitian for Thomas Jefferson University Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology.