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December 17, 2020

Gaining weight during the pandemic? You're not alone

Here's how to shed the extra pounds you added while sitting around the house in 2020

Healthy Eating Weight Loss
Weight Loss 2021 Ketut Subiyanto/

Working from home, heightened stress levels and giving into cravings were among the top causes of weight gain in 2020, a survey found.

It's been hard to stay active during the coronavirus pandemic. Many people spent the spring lockdown binge watching TV shows, baking bread or sitting on the couch all day. 

Naturally, 71 million Americans have gained weight during the pandemic and, as a result, 52% say they feel down about they way they look, according to a study commissioned by the biotechnology company Gelesis.

"While our survey has found Americans have been motivated to develop healthier habits amidst the pandemic, it has also brought to light how many Americans who want to lose weight continue to struggle," Elaine Chiquette, Gelesis chief scientific officer, said in a press release.

Gelesis surveyed 1,012 adults online and used U.S. Census data to ensure the demographics of those participants represented the population. The poll had a margin of error of 3.1 points.  

While there are limitations to every survey, John Morton, medical director of bariatric surgery at Yale New Haven Health System, said he's seen patients in telehealth appointments who've gained anywhere from five to 30 pounds in quarantine.

"Anecdotally, we are definitely seeing weight gain," Morton told Yale Medicine. "You can put on 30 pounds really quickly — you can do it in three months."

A global study from researchers at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Louisiana showed a decline in healthy behaviors during the pandemic were correlated with widespread lockdowns — regardless of geography.

"Individuals with obesity were impacted the most — and that's what we were afraid of," Emily Flanagan, author of the study, told The New York Times. "They not only started off with higher anxiety levels before the pandemic, but they also had the largest increase in anxiety levels throughout the pandemic."

The Gelesis researchers found people became overwhelmingly sedentary, reduced the intensity of their workouts and caved to their food cravings during lockdown. 

Women were more likely to report weight gain during the pandemic. Sixty percent of women said they felt self conscious of their appearance.

Anxiety, stress and lack of motivation were common effects of the pandemic, too. Fifty percent of respondents said they lacked motivation, 33% were more anxious and 41% were more stressed.

Yale Medicine said COVID-19 has created a perfect storm of stress and uncertainty that can lead to weight gain. 

"Life has been disrupted in a major way," said Artur Viana, clinical director of the Yale Metabolic Health and Weight Loss Program. He cited gym closures, heightened stress, postponed checkups and physicals among the contributing factors.

"We know that obesity's causes are multifactorial and that stress is involved," Viana said. "Not only are there organic body changes, but we turn to food as a way to cope with stress."

The survey also found 40 million Americans would give up social media for the rest of the year if it meant losing 10 pounds — but only 17% of those surveyed were willing to part with TV streaming services like Netflix or Hulu.

"In a year when we’ve all already given up so much, our data shows that people would give up even more if it meant being able to lose weight by the end of the year and they remain hopeful about losing weight and feeling healthy in 2021," Chiquette said.

Over half of those surveyed said that maintaining a healthy lifestyle under quarantine was a challenge, and that they needed more support to lose weight. Their top challenges included the cost of healthy food, limited time to exercise or cook healthy meals and a lack of long-term motivation. 

So how do you lose the weight?

One pound of fat is the equivalent of 3,500 calories. The key to shedding weight is cutting 500 calories from your diet every day through exercise and reducing calorie intake, Kathleen Zelman, a registered dietician, wrote in a WebMD story. Following that protocol, you could lose up to a pound a week.

Eating more produce and less processed foods is an important part of weight loss, she said. People should also avoid sugary beverages that contain excess calories. 

Maintaining a daily routine, planning meals and dressing up for work — even if you work from home — can help you stay on track with your fitness goals, Morton and Viana, of Yale, said. Staying in your sweat pants all day may hide any gradual weight gain.

Experts say to never skip the most important meal of the day. Studies show that people who eat breakfast every day have lower body mass indexes than people who skip it, Zelman noted.

Time spent in shutdown can be used to try new, healthy recipes that have whole grains, fruits, vegetables and lean meats. 

"When you are eating foods you like, you can learn to get a taste of fullness from taste as opposed to only the quantity of food," Morton said.

Exercising regularly helps keep off the weight after you lose it, Viana said, and prioritizing sleep can help shed pounds. Studies show that obesity is linked to adults who don't get enough sleep each night. Adults should aim for at least seven to eight hours a night.

The World Health Organization recommends adults get at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate exercise to vigorous exercise per week. Experts suggest finding creative ways to get it during the pandemic: create a makeshift gym, hold family yoga sessions or use household cleaning as a way to increase daily steps. 

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