Why a diet’s not the answer for COVID-19 weight gain

Blog, Wellness

By Ansley Dalbo

COVID-19 has had a big impact on Mary’s life over the last five months. She tried to establish new routines while working from home, but she’s felt stressed about what to do with her kids and virtual learning, she’s worried over money, and has found herself eating because of anxiety a lot more than usual. When she tried on her summer clothes for the first time in June and saw how tight they were, she realized she’d gained ten pounds since the beginning of the pandemic which only made her feel worse.

Sound familiar?  For many of us, one of the results of all the changes due to COVID-19 has been weight gain. If that applies to you, or if the past few months are just a blip in an ongoing struggle with your weight, you may feel that the answer is to go on a diet. However, going on a diet is not the solution, and there are a lot of research studies (see a full list in the references below) and medical experts that will confirm that.

Yes, eating well is important (not just what you eat, but how you eat—more about that here), but going a super-restrictive diet that eliminates major food groups will only result in a slower metabolism and a disordered attitude about food.

We all have stories about how keto worked for our neighbor, and that’s because diets do work in the short-term, but ONLY the short term. A person on a diet will lose weight over three to six months, and he or she will feel great about themselves while that’s happening—but there MANY scientific studies that show that the vast majority of people will re-gain that weight back (and often more) over time. Our bodies are designed to fight back against weight loss because they think we’re losing weight because we’re starving. (For more about this, watch this video.) That’s why obesity is a chronic disease, and not a failure of willpower.

So if it’s not a diet… what IS the answer?  Three things:

First, it’s probably a good idea to look at how you might nudge yourself towards healthier eating in a way that will be sustainable over time.  Some questions to ask yourself:

  • How have my eating habits changed over the past few months?
  • Am I drinking more than I usually do?
  • Am I eating a lot of ultra-processed foods?
  • Am I snacking at night more than I usually do? 

Keeping a food journal over the next few days is a great way to answer these questions and identify areas where your habits could improve. You can download one here that also includes a step-by-step guide for finding patterns and making adjustments. During times of stress, being more mindful about what, how and when we eat becomes even more important—a food journal will help you stay more conscious of your habits and where things might be going off course .

Just as a super-restricted-calorie diet isn’t the answer, nor is there any one eating approach that has been shown to be “better” than another. It really depends on you, your preferences, your genetics and your lifestyle. For more about figuring out what kind of eating approach will work best for you, click here

There is one thing that is worth paying attention to, however. When we look at why obesity rates have increased so much over the past fifty years, an increase in the amount of ultra-processed foods we consume is one of the big reasons, as this recent NIH study makes clear. [For the other reasons, watch this video.] Here’s more about why a diet high in ultra-processed foods will lead to weight gain, and why eating more whole foods (fruits and vegetables, legumes, lean protein, nuts, seeds, etc.) can make a big difference in our weight and health.

The reason that the pandemic has led to weight gain for many of us is because we’re eating more out of stress or boredom or hunger. Looking at why we’re eating and finding alternatives to manage our feelings is critical. For strategies on how to manage emotional eating, read this article. For some great suggestions about how to avoid “habit hunger” (which refers to those times we eat just out of habit rather than physical hunger), here’s a great interview with psychologist Dr. Paul Davidson. 

Second, reaching a healthier weight involves a lot more than what and how much we eat. Here are a few more questions to ask yourself…

  • Am I getting enough sleep?
  • Am I getting some physical activity that I enjoy doing a few times a week?
  • Do I have good ways to manage stress? 

If the answer to any of these questions are no, then it’s time to try to figure out how to get the help and make the necessary adjustments to take good care of yourself. Sleep, activity and stress management tools are IMPORTANT, not just for reaching a healthier weight but for living a happier life.  Any weight you lose will not be sustainable if you don’t have a good framework in place to keep healthy habits up over the long-run.

For most people, making the changes described above are exactly what’s needed to get on the path to a healthier life and reaching a healthier weight. If you’ve been struggling with weight for a long time though, changing your diet and exercise patterns ALONE may not be enough to reach and maintain a healthier weight. Obesity is a chronic disease, and as with all chronic diseases, lifestyle changes alone will only get us so far, which is why many people will need to talk with their doctor. There are tools that work to help people lose weight and keep it off over the long-run. In fact, there are three that have strong evidence behind them:

1) Behavioral interventions. For example, cognitive behavioral therapy is recognized as a medical treatment for obesity / excess weight.

2) Prescription medications (here are three that are approved in Canada)

3) Bariatric surgery

For more information about seeking medical attention, including what to expect and how to have a positive conversation with your doctor, click here

Our “new reality” with COVID-19 isn’t going away anytime soon and that’s why it’s important to start incorporating healthier habits into your life now. Hopefully you’ve found some strategies in this article that will help you not only mitigate future weight gain, but also become more aware of your eating habits that will help you attain better health and happiness over the long haul.

To learn more about healthy eating strategies, click here

To find a weight management physician in Canada near you, click here.

To sign up for our free online email program to learn the science of weight management, click here.

 

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