When Weight Gain Is Cause for Concern
The average weight gain during the COVID-19 pandemic has been 3 to 15 pounds.
According to Northwestern Medicine Bariatric Endocrinologist Elizabeth A. Lowden, MD, this is due to many factors.
- Less movement.
- More snacking and convenience foods. Many are also trying to support local businesses by eating more takeout meals.
- More stress, which means an increase in stress-eating, binge-eating and disordered eating.
- Derailed routines. Some gyms are closed or have limited hours and services, 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.
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.
Your basal metabolic rate is the number of calories your body needs to maintain vital organs and basic life functions like breathing, cell production, circulating your blood and processing the food you eat. Your body burns most of its calories this way.
On top of your basal metabolic rate, you need to consider exercise activity thermogenesis (EAT) and non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) calories.
EAT calories are the calories you burn through exercise.
NEAT calories are the calories you burn with non-exercise activity, ranging from walking across the room to tapping your foot at your desk. NEAT calories comprise a large portion of your daily movement and caloric burn. They’ve also significantly gone down during the pandemic.
“While you may be exercising more frequently, you may find that you are not losing weight, and instead gaining weight because you are consuming more calories and burning fewer NEAT calories,” explains Dr. Lowden.
When Weight Gain Is Cause for Concern
Dr. Lowden says that most people should not be concerned about a weight gain of a few (3 to 5) pounds over a short period of time. However, drastic weight gain can quickly snowball to negatively impact your health.
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).
Having obesity, 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. “You can’t control the gyms being open or not, or if you feel comfortable going to them, but you can control what foods you eat, how much you move and how much you eat,” says Dr. Lowden. “You have to correct the energy balance by being more thoughtful about it.”
- Track your food intake either in a food journal or app. Be mindful of extra snacking and ordering takeout food. “Most weight loss does come from diet,” says Dr. Lowden. “You can’t outrun a bad diet.”
- Wear a fitness tracker to track the calories you’re burning daily.
- Burn more calories than you consume.
Stay Accountable and Motivated
“We’re lucky that technology is available right now to bring external fitness experiences into our own homes,” says Dr. Lowden. “From apps to videos to online support groups to FaceTime calls with friends, there are resources out there to keep you accountable and motivated to lose weight and maintain a healthy routine.”
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.
If you need additional support, many resources are available at Northwestern Medicine to help you lose weight, including therapy, support groups, diet and exercise consulting, and surgical and nonsurgical treatment options.