“For the third time this week, I’m buying junk food for the next two weeks.”
“I’ve eaten so much in Quarantine, I’ve got a tan from the light of the fridge!”
“If you wear the same jeans for 5 days in a row, they get baggy and it looks like you’ve lost weight! Follow me for more Quarantine weight loss tips.”
While these popular memes from social media make light of one of the unspoken side effects from the stress related to COVID-19, they expose a truth that has weighed heavily for many Americans during the pandemic.
You’ve heard of the “Freshman 15” and the “Marriage 15”. Now there is the “COVID 15”. These are one year-long periods of time during which you typically experience overwhelming levels of stress and subsequently gain an average of 15 pounds in body weight.
The science behind stress and weight gain
Throughout history, responses to stress in the human body have evolved to enable us to deal with serious threats to our psyche. Our bodies react through what is commonly known as “fight or flight” mode. Our brains release cortisol, the body’s stress hormone, which causes our heart and lungs to act more quickly. Typically, once the threat is resolved our body’s cortisol levels return to normal with no lasting effects.
But when the threat is chronic and we are not able to fight it nor flee from it, our body is less capable of managing its response. The stress response is prolonged, causing fatigue, brain fog, sleeplessness, accelerated signs of ageing, a negative impact on the immune system and weight gain. Our body’s stress response to COVID-19 does nothing to help us combat the virus, but in fact accelerates our susceptibility to it.
One common coping mechanism for stress is emotional eating. Comfort food, snack foods that require no preparation, fast food and heavily processed foods are typically the most sought-after choices. In other words, the least healthy food choices available.
Obesity on the rise
Just last year, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported that obesity was at an all-time high in the United States, approaching 40 percent of the population. At the time, the CDC reported that depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) were becoming more frequently related to obesity. That was before we had even heard of the new coronavirus.
Compounding the connection between mental health and weight gain is that our perceived body image can cause more psychological problems. For women in particular, gaining weight can lead to depression and yet depression can lead to over-eating and gaining more weight. Last week, the New York Times published the results of a global study that found people who were already struggling with obesity have fared the worst during the pandemic. Both the physical and mental health of those who were already overweight has significantly deteriorated and those surveyed for the study reported high levels of anxiety and depression as a result.
Behavioral scientists have concurred that people often make unhealthy food choices when they are affected by multiple triggers, most notably stress. This causes us to make decisions without really thinking them through, especially when it comes to the multitude of decisions made each day about food. With more people working from home than ever before, the cupboard and fridge within arm’s reach all day, this has never been more of a health concern.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, one in two women and one in four men in America have reported an average weight gain of 15-pounds, hence the term “COVID 15”. This trend is no surprise, as stress levels are high for everyone, routines have been disrupted, access to gyms and outdoor spaces has been limited and sleep has become limited for many. Ultimately, the effects of emotional eating have become a secondary pandemic.
Several snack companies in the U.S. have reported dramatic increases in sales this year, such as the manufacturers of Oreos and Ritz crackers. Fast food restaurants have been far less impacted by the lockdowns than eat-in style restaurants and gyms have suffered several extended periods of time with their doors closed to the public.
Emotional eating is a psychological issue and it can be a dangerous one. You are no longer eating because you are hungry but because you are stressed and require comfort. You turn to food because you believe it will soothe those feelings, albeit temporarily. Many people who emotionally eat do not realize they are doing it and this pattern can easily become a daily norm. Emotional eating can lead to obesity, anxiety, high blood pressure and more serious health problems.
Using food to make us feel good enables us to avoid dealing with the real issue that is causing us stress. In the era of COVID-19, we feel so powerless against the virus that we may feel food is the one constant we can turn to for relief. Bad eating habits combined with the trend towards less exercise is exacerbating the downward spiral of overall health for many Americans.
Emotional eating is an unhealthy behavior and can only be reversed once you recognize the pattern, identify your personal triggers and make a solid plan to create healthier behaviors. This plan must include not only healthier food choices but also healthier coping mechanisms for dealing with feelings. Emotional eating, specifically, can only be resolved through a psychological shift to mindful eating. You need to take some of the stress away by taking things one day at a time and seeking support however possible.
Resetting your lifestyle
In the New Year, we can expect to see astronomical increases in memberships to things like Noom and Weight Watchers, gym memberships and purchases of diet books, new health blogs, etc. due to the mentality that 2021 is a new year and will be a different year from the last one. But because there are psychological reasons for the “COVID 15” weight gained in 2020, there must be psychological changes to attain weight loss in 2021. Hopefully, we will also see dramatic increases in on-line therapy options and various support systems to provide lasting changes. Until we understand the psychology behind weight gain, we cannot change the bad habits that got us here. Weight loss will only be temporary with diets and workouts unless we first change the way we deal with feelings of stress.
Ultimately, the only person you can rely upon for making a positive change in your lifestyle is you. Accountability to yourself is key and self-care is paramount. For tips on how you can change your thinking patterns and eating habits, click on our latest post here.