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Is Gaining the "COVID-19” a Real Thing?

The pandemic and sheltering-in-place have created a perfect storm for weight gain—life has been disrupted, schedules and routines are out of whack, gyms and parks are closed. We’re moving less, burning fewer calories, and stressing and snacking more.

With all of these factors contributing to potential weight gain, are people truly gaining the COVID “19?” Well, while the average amount of weight gain is not quite 19 lbs., Kim van Groos, ARNP, with medical weight management at Overlake Clinics says, “A study recently found that the average weight gain during quarantine, as of August, was 12.5 lbs. It’s a similar sort of challenge to losing weight around the holidays, only this has been going on for six months, not just the holiday season.”

van Groos, ARNP, along with Overlake Medical Center dietitians Mikeisha Brannock, RDN, CD and Melicent Smith, MS, RDN, address your questions about nutrition and activity during the pandemic. Rather than focusing on a number on the scale, we should focus on an overall healthy lifestyle that supports immune health and preventing chronic disease.

What should I do if I’ve gained unwanted weight during the pandemic?

Melicent Smith, MS, RDN: I think the first step is mindful eating, which means to really sit down to eat your meals and think about how the food tastes and smells; don’t eat in front of the computer or the TV. When we eat because of stress, we often do so unintentionally and we’re not really thinking about what we eating.

Also, we need to be gentle with ourselves. We are all experiencing a new way of life.

van Groos, ARNP: What people need to focus on is being healthy overall. There is a new trend with changing habits and behavior called “micro habits,” which means making really tiny changes. Instead of trying to throw out your whole diet, make a little change. Put the fruit bowl on the counter where you can see it. Put healthy foods on your shopping list. Even if that’s the extent of it, you’re setting yourself up for success with these small habits that don’t take a lot of effort.

There are so many other challenges right now. Why should I focus on nutrition?

van Groos: People should focus on nutrition always, but it’s particularly important during this pandemic, when we’re focused on staying healthy and avoiding disease. Get those fresh fruits and vegetables in where you can. Frozen is a really good alternative because it doesn’t go bad, it’s cost-effective and it’s just as good for you as fresh.

Mikeisha Brannock, RDN, CD: Nutrition is a long-term investment in your health. Good nutrition reduces risk of diabetes, heart disease and certain types of cancers. There are also the benefits of improved immunity. One of our biggest immune organs is our gastrointestinal tract—our gut. By taking good care of our gut, we can improve and strengthen our immunity. To do so, get adequate fiber throughout the day, take in adequate water and get a little dose of probiotics (such as fermented vegetables, yogurt or kefir).

Between having my kids at home and working from home, I don’t have time to work out.  How can I fit fitness into my schedule?

Brannock: Start with small increments—even if you can commit to 10 minutes a day, twice a day, that is so much better than not doing anything at all. Try to incorporate your kids into fitness and make it a family activity. Go for a walk, put on a dance video. I’ve even heard parents have set up little stationary bikes for their kids in the house, so they can all do biking together inside.

Smith: Exercise is important for stress reduction; try yoga or other stress-reducing forms of exercise by using apps or videos online.

Also, try scheduling exercise and make activity a part of your routines. The more we can bring ourselves back into a routine, the easier it will be.

van Groos: Exercise isn’t typically how a lot of us burn our extra calories in a day. There is something called “NEAT,” which is non-exercise activity. The “T” stands for thermogenesis, which is just a fancy way of saying that’s the calories we burn—everything except sleeping and exercise. Everything in between falls in this category, which accounts for about 700 calories burned a day. If you get rid of that activity, which we’ve done in quarantine, we’ve gotten rid of activities that burn calories, like going to work, grocery shopping and out with friends.

Sometimes instead of focusing on exercise, which can be an added stress, focus on just being active. Going for short walks, going up and down the stairs a couple more times a day, just these little things around the house that may not count as exercise, but they are good activity.

I am trying to eat right and stay active, but I’m either gaining weight or not losing any weight. What should I do?

Smith: The stress that has resulted from the pandemic can cause metabolic changes associated with the fight-or-flight syndrome, where the body doesn’t want to give up calories, which makes it harder to lose weight.

It’s important to focus on self-care: how you feel, how your clothes fit and improved endurance; not just the number on the scale.

You may want to consider journaling for a few days what you ate, when you ate it and maybe how you were feeling when you ate that food. Not only can it be helpful for self-reflection, but if you see a dietitian, it’s useful for us to be able to review your journal at a consultation.

Brannock: If you were seeing weight loss prior to the pandemic, and now you’re not losing any weight, that’s what’s called a plateau. It’s a normal and can last up to a month. So, if you’ve been stuck at the same weight, and you’ve been consistent with your activity and your nutrition, that’s totally fine. Just continue to be consistent; your body is simply adjusting metabolically to those changes.

If the plateau prolongs over a month or over two months, that’s when you might consider going to see your primary care provider. There are other things besides nutrition and fitness that can impact your weight, such as certain medications or hormonal imbalances. Get some lab work done, make sure that your medications aren’t holding you back.

van Groos: It is important to seek professional assistance in weight loss when you feel like you are ready, willing and able. If it’s really stressing you out and you feel like they are very limited changes you can make in your diet, that might not be the best time. Finding a time when you know you can make changes and then getting advice from a professional, instead of going with the latest trend, is always advisable.

Be sure to involve your healthcare team when making lifestyle changes. Work with your primary care provider annually for routine lab work. Your primary care provider can also make referrals to other specialties such as counselors, physical therapists and registered dietitians.

Watch the full-length interview with Kim, Melicent and Mikeisha in the videos below:

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