Tales of Pandemic Weight Loss and Gain

For many people fear and stress are fueling unsustainable eating habits
December 24, 2020 Updated: January 2, 2021

As the new year ushers in the annual flurry of weight-loss resolutions, you may be thinking of losing a few pounds after months of lockdowns and stress-eating.

Be honest. Have you plumped up during the pandemic? If so, you’re not alone.

The phenomenon is known as the “quarantine 15.” It refers to the 15 pounds (more or less) many have put on while they’ve been stuck at home.

A new study gives a global scope of the issue.

Research Director Nick Rizzo and his team at RunRepeat, an online shoe store known for its ranking system, surveyed nearly 20,000 people from 140 countries. They found that more than one-third (36 percent) gained more than five pounds over the past year.

The United States had the most gainers (40 percent) and the United Kingdom had the least (28 percent).

Globally, the quarantine 15 hit women harder. In comparison to males, females were more than 14 percent more likely to gain weight, and nearly 17 percent less likely to lose weight. Another poll from May found that nearly half of women gained weight during quarantine.

These studies don’t explore how or why each person gained weight, but Rizzo believes it comes down to two things: How much did the pandemic personally disrupt your life? And how well did you adapt to new circumstances?

“We’ve all experienced a massive change in our lives,” Rizzo said. “Some have been able to maintain their habits, or improve their habits, and some people have been out of control of what they’re doing.”

Mike Miller, editor-in-chief for the Wilderness Times, traces his 10-pound weight gain to the pandemic derailing his gym habit. Miller says before quarantine, he worked out about five times a week. But when gyms closed, he became less active. However, he still continued eating his previous workout portions.

“Back when I was going to the gym, I used to eat monster meals. Entree, side, dessert, seconds, you name it. It didn’t really matter because I was burning so many calories, I could eat anything,” Miller said.

By May, Miller noticed the change in his body and adapted to his circumstances. He started talking morning walks, eating less, and building a home gym.

“I bought some weights off Craigslist. They were expensive, but health is wealth, and they’re well worth the purchase price,” he said. “It’s not the same as the gym, but it’s definitely enough.”

But not everyone has been able to turn things around so fast. When change or stress is severe, it can become much harder to bounce back.

Author Christina Stanton says she gained 30 pounds this year. It all started with a “terrible case” of COVID-19 in mid-March. Stanton was hospitalized twice, and at one point given a 50 percent chance of survival.

“I barely moved for two months, my body was so torn up,” Stanton said.

Before COVID-19, she got plenty of exercise, she said. “I’m from New York City where I typically walk eight miles a day. I’m normally very physically active, which I’m sure contributed to the incredible weight gain.”

When Stanton’s muscles finally got back the strength to start moving again, her lungs were only about half their previous capacity. So she couldn’t do much before she got winded.

Stanton’s lung capacity has since improved, but she says now her will is shot. Gaining so much weight in such a short period of time has been an overwhelming ordeal.

“As it creeps up, I feel more and more powerless,” she said.

Eating and Exercise Opportunities

While just more than one-third of respondents in Rizzo’s study gained weight, another third (globally 32 percent) lost weight. The United States saw the fewest losers (27 percent), the UK the most (40 percent).

“The UK had as much losing as the U.S. had gained,” Rizzo said.

Pandemic responses varied from country to country, and differing policies may have played a role in public weight fluctuations around the world. When Rizzo talked to a colleague in the UK, he realized that, unlike Americans, the British had exercise built into their day.

“In the UK, everyone had an hour of time to go outside during the lockdown. And one of the main things people would do is go exercise,” Rizzo said. “Pretty much everyone my colleague knew started running or hiking. In the United States, people were encouraged to wear masks and take precautions, but there was nothing about how to take care of yourself in this different world that we’re living in.”

But policy results can vary. Rhiannon Moore is from the UK, but she gained over the past year.  She blames it on having more opportunities to eat.

“Working from home meant I was close to the refrigerator. Every time I had a five-minute break, I’d go to the fridge or cupboard and eat something, just because it was there. I wasn’t hungry, but it became a routine,” Moore said. “I felt powerless to stop it.”

Moore says she tried to buy healthier food so that she had access to better choices when she started snacking. But the experiment only lasted a week, because she felt so unsatisfied.

Moore says she needed more than nutrients. She ate to alleviate boredom and loneliness.

“Having nowhere to go and very few people to talk to for days and days left me a little bit empty and purposeless, so I think I used food to fill time and to fill a bit of an empty hole in me,” she said.

For some, the impetus to get in shape became a personal mission during COVID-19.  Semi-retired 78-year-old Jim Edholm says his inspiration to slim down came a few months before the lockdown did. In October 2019, Edholm said he was “lucky enough” to be diagnosed with borderline diabetes. It encouraged him to reduce sugar intake, and start walking.

The lockdown drove Edholm to walk even more, and eat less.

“I found that the combination of reducing my sugar and walking curbed my appetite,” said Edholm, who lost 15 pounds over the past year.

Fear Factor

One habit often blamed for causing the quarantine 15 weight gain is drinking booze. It’s easy to see why. Alcohol is empty calories, and a nice drink—or three—is tempting during life’s stressful episodes.

While alcohol is often a contributing factor to weight gain, Edholm believes the issue goes much deeper. Although he has drastically reduced his sugar, Edholm proudly proclaims that he never gave up his scotch. But he believes not getting caught up in the fear of COVID-19 has allowed him to focus his energy on his own self-care.

“I believe that the pandemic panic is total BS,” he said. So while I drank more, I was successful in improving my mental outlook, increasing my positive attitude and sense of accomplishment. I dodged the pandemic depression that I believe leads to weight gain.”

For author and high school English teacher Marci Brockman, the stress of the pandemic has been much more difficult to shake—and it’s just been one of multiple stressors that have hit her this past year. The experience has left Brockman rattled. Her frequent anxiety attacks mimicking cardiac episodes prompted her doctor and therapist to put her on the antidepressant Lexapro.

“I was teaching online having been thrust into connecting with new technology and struggling to provide meaningful instruction, while we were all freaking out over COVID numbers, illness, and deaths,” Brockman said. “I’m balancing this with writing, marketing, following the election—which is another source of stress—and being anxious about my weight.”

Even before the stress of COVID-19, Brockman was burdened with health problems. In June 2019, she was given a complete hysterectomy. The addition of stay-at-home orders made for a perfect storm of weight gain.

“Without estrogen to regulate my body, drastically reduced activity, and incomparable anxiety and stress, I went off my healthy eating plan and spent six months binge eating comfort food,” Brockman said. “At last count, I’ve gained 20 pounds since March and had previously gained 25 pounds. So, that has completely changed how my body looks and feels to me.”

Brockman says staying productive has helped her cope (she finished writing two books under lockdown), but she remains frustrated with her body. Despite consulting a dietitian, starting a Pilates routine at home, and using a fitness app, Brockman says the extra pounds refuse to leave.

“For now, I’ve decided to let it all ride,” she said.

Self-proclaimed “weight loss wizard” Alex Tomaszewska helps women lose weight for a living. She’s heard from a lot of people over the past year who are dealing with a similar pattern to Brockman.

“They seem to have no control over their body expansion and it’s scary, especially seeing that there is no end to lockdown soon. This weight gain makes us doubt ourselves even more than just the whole general pandemic chaos,” Tomaszewska said.

Tomaszewska believes that fear is at the heart of many people’s weight gain. She believes the best remedy isn’t a specific exercise routine or diet plan, but learning how to remain calm and confident in tough times.

“That fear influences not only our weight, but also our immune system,” she said.

Tomaszewska admits that overcoming fear is easier said than done. But she says that if we can start to get our fear under control—through meditation, journaling, or just turning off the news—we can turn things around.

“I can guarantee you it’s possible. And it will pay off a hundred times in the future, too,” Tomaszewska said.

Personal trainer and fitness coach Danielle Young echoes Tamaszewka’s advice. Young says, instead of fretting about the numbers rising on the scale, focus on being kind to yourself.

“Move your body in a way that brings you joy,” Young said. “Focus on the good things in life. Practice gratitude. Take care of yourself in a positive way.”

Brockman is already working toward this goal. In an article from The Elephant Journal, Brockman shares about the frustration she’s had with her body, and the importance of compassion and self-acceptance in overcoming it.

“I regularly judge and cruelly criticize my body, and I have to work hard to see it kindly and generously,” Brockman writes. “We need to practice expressing patience, forgiveness, kindness, love, compassion, and uncompromising support to ourselves and, over time, it will become how we think and feel.”

Follow Conan on Twitter: @ConanMilner