Respiratory Virus and Measles Information

Young man eating a snack while on the computer
Young man eating a snack while on the computer

How to Lose Pandemic Weight

When Weight Gain Is Cause for Concern

As the COVID-19 pandemic uprooted lives and routines, there has been an increase in stress and a decrease in opportunity for physical activity and proper nutrition. This has led to weight gain among children and adolescents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Northwestern Medicine Bariatric Dietitian Audra Wilson, MS, RD, CSOWM, LDN, CSCS, explains the context behind these findings.

It can be eye-opening to add up everything you're eating.
— Audra Wilson, MS, RD, CSOWM, LDN, CSCS

How COVID-19 Shifted Activity

"For a lot of people, not going into work physically has limited steps and activity quite a bit," Wilson says. "Commutes and walking at work have often been cut out, and that's a lot of movement you're not getting while you're instead being static."

However, a potentially more static lifestyle is not the only factor that affects weight gain during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some others are:

  • More snacking and convenience foods. Many people have also tried to support local businesses by eating more takeout meals.
  • More stress. This leads to an increase in stress eating, binge eating and disordered eating.
  • Derailed routines. Some gyms have closed or have new restrictions, and some people now have a "commute" that is just steps away in another room at home.

How Your Body Gains Weight

To understand pandemic weight gain, it's important to understand your metabolism, or your body's process of converting the calories you eat into energy.

In general:

  • If you eat more calories than you burn daily, you will gain weight.
  • If you eat fewer calories than you burn daily, you will lose weight.
  • If the calories you consume are equal to the calories you burn daily, you will maintain the same weight.

However, maintaining a healthy weight does not mean your calories have to be perfectly balanced every day. A consistent balance is the key to maintaining a healthy weight. Additionally, Wilson says to spread your calorie intake throughout the day – this can help your metabolism work consistently to convert those calories to energy.

When Weight Gain Is Cause for Concern

Wilson says that if you are uncomfortable — with clothes not fitting or your labs changing — that could be a sign that you should see a physician.

"Listen to your body," she explains. "You just might not feel like yourself." She adds that you could even feel fatigued or less interested and that you might see impacts on other health conditions.

Consult your physician about pandemic weight gain if:

  • You have uncontrolled diabetes.
  • You have an underlying chronic illness, such as asthma or congestive heart failure.
  • Your weight gain puts you at an unhealthy body mass index (BMI).

Being obese, defined as having a BMI above 30 kg/m2, or severe obesity, defined as having a BMI of 40 kg/m2 or above, increases your risk of severe illness from COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

How to Lose Pandemic Weight

  • Control what you can to get back to a healthy lifestyle. "The gym doesn't have to be open," explains Wilson. "Body-weight exercises, such as lunges, assisted push-ups and planks, are great ways to get in a quick workout at home."
  • Track your food intake either in a food journal or app. Be mindful of extra snacking and ordering takeout food. "It can be eye-opening to add up everything you're eating," Wilson says. She also advises shopping for and prepping your meals ahead of time, if possible. This makes healthier food options more easily available during the week.
  • Wear a fitness tracker to track the calories you are burning daily. Though they might not be totally accurate, these trackers can give you a baseline to compare on a day-to-day basis.
  • Burn more calories than you consume. Wilson says going on a walk during a work call as well as going up and down the stairs every hour are examples of how to stay active throughout and burn calories throughout the day. 

Stay Accountable and Motivated

Small changes can add up, and consistency is key. You don't have to do fad diets and boot camps to see results. Start small, stay committed and be patient.

"Build your network," says Wilson. "The more people you can have supporting you, the more likely you are to have success."

But still, weight loss is a journey, and nothing is guaranteed. If you are having trouble achieving your weight loss goals, Wilson recommends exploring additional support, such as therapy, support groups, exercise consulting, surgery and more.