Open your inbox, turn on the TV, or scroll through social, and you’re bound to encounter messaging about pandemic weight gain.
The typical takeaway: Now that we’re beginning to find a new normal, losing the “quarantine 15” should be your first order of business.
But is the way we talk about the quarantine 15 actually helpful?
Or is this seemingly playful riff on the “freshman 15” actually breeding shame and making it more difficult to get back into a healthy post-pandemic groove?
What Caused Pandemic Weight Gain?
It’s understandable why some people gained weight in the midst of a global pandemic.
Even those who were previously focused on eating a balanced diet had to adjust their priorities to survive in their new reality, says Danielle Gaffen, M.S., R.D.N.
“Many of us were stuck at home, working remotely or job hunting, or needed to figure out childcare or learning via virtual classes,” Gaffen adds. “It’s not a surprise that the pandemic has affected how we all obtained and prepared food, made our food choices, and determined how much we ate, as well as our ability and willingness to stay physically active.”
Some also struggled with stress, boredom, or social isolation.
“The kitchen was just a few steps away and oftentimes stocked full of comfort foods or foods that were the easiest to prepare but maybe not the most healthful options,” Gaffen says.
People’s weights “went up or down depending on stress, movement, access to more or less food, and many more factors,” Hornstein adds.
The idea of the “quarantine 15” is less a reflection of our collective health and more a marketing buzzword.
How to Reframe the “Quarantine 15”
With so many legitimate reasons for pandemic weight gain, it’s important not to get discouraged by the memes, jokes, and negative messaging around the quarantine 15.
You may have gotten off track with your workouts or passed the time baking (and eating) homemade bread.
But remember: 2020 was not a normal year.
Instead of stressing about dropping the pandemic pounds ASAP, here’s how you can shift your mindset:
Both Hornstein and Gaffen suggest starting from a place of self-compassion.
“The pandemic was a stressful time for everyone. We all were doing the best we could with the tools we had at the time,” Gaffen says.
Take a step back and reflect on what you learned, your struggles, your triumphs, and your losses.
Pandemic weight gain is just one small part of the story.
Drastic diet overhauls are rarely sustainable, which is “just setting you up to regain the weight later when the diet is stopped,” Gaffen says.
So if you’ve developed some habits that aren’t serving you, start by changing one thing at a time.
“It can feel discouraging to focus on an end goal of losing a certain amount of weight,” Gaffen explains. “Stay encouraged by feeling empowered making small tweaks.”
For example, you might set a goal of adding more veggies to your dinner each night.
Focus on what you’re adding, not losing
Instead of making weight loss your priority, focus on catching up on all the activities you missed out on during the pandemic — like spending time outdoors with family, volunteering, hiking with friends, or rejoining your weekend yoga class.
“I think natural movement in the world will produce changes in our bodies in a healthful way,” Hornstein says.
4 Tips for Rebuilding Your Healthy Habits
First things first: You successfully weathered the weirdest year ever, so give yourself some credit for that.
Stressing about fear-based “quarantine 15” messaging will only make you feel worse about yourself, Hornstein says, so focus on adopting healthy and sustainable habits for the future.
Here are four ways to get started.
1. Get moving
“Move in whatever way your body can and enjoys,” says Hornstein.
You’ll feel fulfilled and burn calories. Activities like walking, dancing, and even gardening count!
2. Listen to your body
Skip the super-restrictive diets and focus on building a healthy relationship with food.
Practice mindful eating, and listen to your body’s hunger cues.
When you feel like you’ve had enough to eat, stop — before you feel stuffed, Gaffen says.
Along with all the other reasons to stay hydrated throughout the day, staying on top of your fluid intake can help mitigate overeating.
“You may be thirsty, not hungry,” Gaffen says.
4. Plan your meals
Allowing yourself to get to the point of feeling famished will likely lead to less-than-healthy food choices.
“Planning to eat at least three times a day can help keep hunger levels at bay, which can prevent binging on less healthful snacks,” Gaffen says.
Think of meal planning and meal prep as a form of self-care.
It takes the stress out of deciding what to cook after a busy day, plus you can choose healthy meals that will nourish your body — before you’re hangry.
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