Ask an Expert: How to Promote Health & Tackle Pandemic Weight Gain

“There’s no one size fits all. Honestly, I really feel like it all just depends on what you can do, realistically. The best diet is something that you can stick with for the rest of your life.”
Richelle Rada, Licensed Dietician

The year 2020 will go down in history as the year that the most severe global health emergency was ever declared by the World Health Organization. A year after the onset of the crisis, vaccines are gaining widespread distribution and death rates are beginning to decline, but there is another public health problem that threatens to have a lasting impact long after the virus has been controlled: weight gain.

A new American Psychological Association (APA) survey of more than 3,000 people shows that 61 percent of U.S. adults have experienced undesired weight changes since the Covid-19 outbreak. According to the new APA survey, two in five gained more weight than they intended over the last year, at an average of 29 pounds per person. And 10 percent said they gained more than 50 pounds.

The majority of essential workers (54 percent), such as healthcare workers and people who work in law enforcement, said they have relied on a lot of unhealthy habits to get through the pandemic.

A few extra pounds may not seem like a big deal when there are more immediate concerns on the horizon, but significant weight gain poses very real long-term health risks. According to the National Institutes of Health, people who gain more than 11 pounds are at higher risk of developing Type II diabetes mellitus and coronary heart disease, and people who gain more than 24 pounds are at higher risk of developing ischemic stroke.

As we begin to return to normal, it’s time to think about shedding the extra pounds we may have put on during the quarantine. We talked to nutritionist Richelle Rada to break down the main causes of weight gain over the pandemic so that we can understand how to reverse its effects.

Meet the Expert: Licensed Dietician Richelle Rada

Richelle Rada is a licensed dietician based in Guam. Born and raised in Hawaii, she fosters the spirit of aloha and encourages clients to honor food, family, and culture when it comes to nutrition.

Rada has been a dietitian for the U.S. Renal Care in Dededo, Guam for the last five years. She earned her bachelor of science degree in science and human nutrition from the University of Hawaii at Manoa in 2012. You can subscribe to her health newsletter here and follow her on Instagram for lifestyle tips.

The Effects of Stress on Your Body

People from all walks of life have experienced increased stress during the pandemic for one reason or another. According to reports, three in four adults reported high stress levels during the past year related to the pandemic.

Those that lost their jobs have dealt with ongoing financial-related stress. On the other side, those that were deemed “essential workers” have experienced increased stress on the job due to increased exposure to the virus and staffing shortages.

Even those whose employment situations have not been directly affected by the pandemic have dealt with other stressors, like worrying about contracting the virus or the well-being of their family members. So, it’s safe to say that the collective stress of our society has gone up substantially in the last year.

“People naturally turn to food during stressful times because it’s a comfort, not just nourishment. If eating is a person’s only way to cope with stress, that obviously could be a very big contributor to weight gain,” Rada said.

Scientifically, we reach for snacks during stressful periods because the stress hormone, cortisol, kicks into gear. This increase in cortisol often causes an increase in appetite. In other words, our bodies think we need more energy to fight whatever it is that is causing the anxiety.

Because foods that are high in sugar and fat provide quick energy, that’s what we tend to crave. So, not only do we eat greater quantities of food in stressful situations, but we also eat foods that are higher in calories.

Not only can stress lead to overeating, but it also suppresses your digestion system.

“Stress signals to your brain and your body, ‘Hey, you’re in danger.’ So it’s really not going to prioritize digestion. Oftentimes, it might take a while for the food to be digested when you’re stressed,” Rada said.

When the stress response is activated, the body reroutes its resources to trigger the “fight or flight” response. The central nervous system shuts down digestion by slowing contractions of digestive muscles.

If the stress response happens only occasionally, the body is able to recover and continue functioning normally, but if the stress response is triggered too often, the body has a more difficult time recovering, which impedes the flow of digestion and slows down your metabolism.

All in all, stress is a recipe for weight gain.

A Lack of Sleep

Stress can also cause sleep deprivation, which has repeatedly been linked to a higher body mass index (BMI) and weight gain. Why?

A study from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that when people don’t get enough sleep, their late-night snacking increases, and they are more likely to go for high-carb snacks. Another study from the University of Chicago reaffirmed this theory, finding that sleep-deprived participants chose snacks with twice as much fat as those who slept for at least eight hours.

But more than encouraging bad eating habits, sleep deprivation also triggers a cortisol spike, which tells your body to conserve your energy to fuel you during waking hours.

After about four days of getting insufficient sleep, your body’s ability to process insulin—a hormone needed to change sugar, starches, and other food into energy—begins to diminish. “When your body doesn’t respond properly to insulin, it has trouble processing fats from your bloodstream, so it ends up storing them as fat,” WebMD writes.

Decreased Exercise

Stay-in-place orders and social distancing measures have also had an impact on our collective weight gain. When gyms began closing during the onset of the pandemic, many of us were cut off from our primary source of exercise.

And with so many people working from home, many of us have become more sedentary than ever before. Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) is the number of calories that you burn from activities like cleaning, grocery shopping, or walking up and down a flight of stairs.

“In a traditional office setting, you would work at your desk and then maybe have to get up and walk around to get the printer paper or talk to a coworker. But at home, we’re not getting up from our seats as often,” Rada said. “So there’s really not that type of energy expenditure that you usually would do when you’re probably in a different setting.”

How to Combat Pandemic Weight Gain

On the individual level, those of us who do choose to lose weight gained during the pandemic face the longstanding challenge of lifestyle change and sustaining that change over time. As countries return to normal, individuals leaving the quarantine lifestyle should take advantage and seek a new, healthier normal.

Now that we understand the factors that have contributed to our weight gain, we can better plan for how to get back to a healthy weight. Rada offered her four most important tips.

Tip 1: Find a Diet That Makes Sense for You

There have been countless articles published about how to shed the extra pounds you may have put on over the last year. Some articles advocate for popular diets, like Keto, intermittent fasting, plant-based dieting, or Paleo. It can be difficult to determine which option is the best choice for you.

Rada recommends considering your geographic location, your lifestyle, your financial parameters to find an option that best suits your body and your circumstances.

“There’s no one size fits all. Honestly, I really feel like it all just depends on what you can do, realistically. The best diet is something that you can stick with for the rest of your life,” she said.

Rada says that one of the biggest mistakes that people make when it comes to dieting is choosing a diet that they will stick to temporarily, like Keto, and then going back to their previous eating habits after they have lost the desired amount of weight.

“What I most commonly see is that people will start and diet and say, ‘Okay, great, I have lost 30 pounds,’ and then they start adding everything back. Like in Hawaii and Guam, people love to eat rice. That’s a staple in our culture. On the Keto diet, they’re not really allowed to eat rice. So they give it up during the diet, but they gain it all back. It’s safe to say that that type of style of eating wasn’t for them,” she said.

“I would probably say, instead of following a cookie-cutter diet, I think it’s best to try to set simple, practical goals.”

Tip 2: Set Realistic Expectations

Another big mistake that people make when endeavoring to lose weight is setting lofty goals.

“I always like to ask people, what is the gap between your intention and your behavior? If somebody wants to exercise seven days a week, but they are starting at zero, that’s a really big gap,” Rada said. “So achieving that behavior is not going to be as easy, but if they set something more realistic, like exercising twice a week, that’s attainable.”

Tip 3: Diversify Your Exercise

Rada also wants people to give themselves permission to flout rigid exercise routines in favor of a more fluid approach.

“I just base my exercise routine on what I feel in that moment because sometimes I have found when I’m following a strict program, I might not really feel like sticking to it, so I honor that,” she said.

“I ask myself, what do I want to do today? Do I want to dance to a YouTube video? There’s so much on YouTube that you can find. Or do I want to just be out in nature and just take a walk, breathe some fresh air, or can I just walk around longer at the grocery store today?”

Tip 4: Document Your Journey

Rada says that keeping track of your diet helps you understand your habits and increases your likelihood of hitting your goals.

Her favorite diet-tracking app is MyFitnessPal. With the app, you can scan barcodes on your food products or type the item’s name into the database to find out how many calories it contains, log your meals, and link in your other fitness tracking apps, like FitBit.

But Rada says that logging your diet in a notebook is just as good of an option. “Just seeing what you are eating brings you that awareness and then it can bring about that change,” she said.

Nina Chamlou
Nina Chamlou Writer

Nina Chamlou is an avid freelance writer from Portland, OR. She writes about economic trends, business, technology, digitization, supply chain, healthcare, education, aviation, and travel. You can find her floating around the Pacific Northwest in diners and coffee shops, or traveling abroad, studying the locale from behind her MacBook. Visit her website at www.ninachamlou.com.