Advice Column, Health, Parenting

Lockdown Weight Gain

  • Paarl Dietitians
  • Category Advice Column, Health, Parenting

Since being back at the practice and seeing patients, we found that majority of people have gained 1-3kg during the lockdown period. This weight gain occurred despite eating ‘ok’ and doing some form of exercise.  

This lockdown weight gain has been seen and reported in many countries. 

An interesting poll was run by an UK based Professor in Cardiology on CardioTwitter with over 270 participants, of which over 50% reported having gained weight. In fact, 20% reported having gained over 5 pounds (more than 2.3kg) in weight. But there’s also other data, data from an electronic scale manufacturer in the United States. They obtained data from several hundred thousand participants, and they showed, importantly, that the average weight gain was rather more modest at 0.2 pounds (0.09kg). Nevertheless, over 20% of individuals reported a weight gain of over 1 pound (0.5kg). But let’s not forget that the individuals that buy these electronic scales – that are state of the art – are very likely not to represent the general population. And so it is likely that the weight gain experienced by the general population is probably higher than this 1 pound (0.5kg).

So what are the causes of this weight gain?  

WHY THE WEIGHT GAIN?

Well, it is likely to be multifactorial. First and foremost, we’re less active. Due to social distancing, staying at home reduces exercise options, markedly decreasing physical activity and skyrocketing screen time.

Secondly, our dietary habits have changed. Individuals are stockpiling food, and we’re snacking and grazing for most of the day. We’re also switching to very carbohydrate rich diets, and this will obviously have an impact on our weight gain.

Despite the fact that alcohol sales are prohibited many people were drinking more with the start of lockdown. This will clearly have an impact on calorie intake and weight gain.

But let us also not underestimate the psychological impact of social isolation during this lockdown. And we know that psychology can have a major effect on both calorie intake and weight gain. Stress after all is a very important factor in driving our eating habits. This often leads us to replace that comfort gap with comfort food and alcohol.

 ‘HOLIDAY MODE’

The best we could equate it to is what happens to us during holiday periods, when we kind of throw caution to the wind and think: “It’s holiday time”. Especially during the first few weeks of lockdown. Speaking from a personal perspective – we had more braai’s, drinking more alcohol, cooking elaborate meals – since we had the time. Plus… no getting up early the next morning to go to work that justified that extra glass of wine. 

Most of us have been over consuming in the past weeks. Now it does get to a point where we can’t continue that hedonistic activity without affecting our health.

We must keep in mind that 2 glasses of wine are equal to 320 kcal, 5 slices of bread and it takes 65 minutes to walk it off. So, in the bigger scheme of things…. At the end of the week if we drink 2 glasses of wine every evening it comes down to 2240 kcal, 35 slices of bread and 455 minutes of walking and a subsequent weight gain of 1.3kg per week. 

EAT OUT OF BOREDOM AND STRESS

As the weeks of living in lockdown take their toll, many of us are raiding the fridge for comfort food – since we are bored and stressed. Plus, most of us want to limit our trips to the supermarket – so we buy in bulk, which means that there is large volume of ‘stock’ to pick and choose from. 

Increased stress levels can trigger unhealthy eating patterns, such as overeating, emotional eating, and choosing unhealthy foods such as those higher in saturated fats, simple refined carbs, sugar sweetened beverages and alcohol.

Now we think: ‘Oh my goodness, there’s so much going on in the world, I’m just going to not worry about my eating behaviour. People may use all kinds of excuses for poor eating behaviour, and certainly Covid-19 is a very good excuse. Lots of anecdotal evidence suggests that people have adopted unhealthy behaviour patterns – overeating the wrong kinds of foods and drinking more during lockdown. 

However, there are physiological reasons for some of these behaviours. When the body is stressed it produces too much cortisol, that raises insulin – which makes us more likely to over-eat – and not just any kind of foods, but those which are high in fat and sugar. To further complicate things, carbohydrates stimulate the production of serotonin (the feel good hormone) – that is why you feel so happy when you eat sugar and carbs. Sadly this feel good effect only last a short while. Therefore, we would need to eat continuously to feel well continuously. Subsequently….. we gain weight. Weight gain makes us sad and emotional – and so it triggers another round of comfort eating. Vicious cycle!

SNACKING

Most people report eating more rusks, chocolate, biscuits and crisps than usual – just as a bit of a release, or as a reward after cleaning the house or to lift the mood.  

In theory, if you eat an extra 500kcal a day – you could potentially gain 2-4kg in ‘n month. Let’s put things in perspective:

  • 1 small packet of crisps = 190kcal
  • 1 packet of flavoured microwave popcorn = 373kcal
  • 1 handful of nuts = 305kcal
  • Mug of hot chocolate = 150kcal
  • 1 muesli rusk = 155kcal

As you can see from above, the extra calories on-top of your usual intake very quickly adds up to an additional 500kcal in a day, and may potentially contribute to weight gain. 

In general it is fine to have a couple of snacks, but you might then need to have slightly smaller meals. And if snacking is a real concern, you could put your snacks for the day in a box. If you eat them all before lunch, that’s fine, but there’s no more. Alternatively, if you can’t control yourself it is perhaps better not to buy treats and snacks. 

LESS ACTIVE

Yes, you may perhaps be exercising during lockdown. But with lockdown chances are good that you still be moving less than usual. The school run, popping into the shops, walking around in the mall, rushing up the stairs at work means steps that does burn calories. With lockdown you may be more sedentary – watching TV, sitting in front of your computer, building puzzles – doing less steps than usual.  

Good news – yes, cleaning the house and mowing the lawn is very good exercise and helps to burn the calories… but that often ends with rewarding yourself with a cold beer or coffee and rusks (whatever floats your boat). Making the calorie burn redundant. 

We have also seen (with our fancy in-Body scale) that many people during lockdown has lost muscle mass. The more muscle we have, the faster our metabolism, the less muscle we have, the slower our metabolic rate i.e. calorie and fat burning ability.

SUMMARY

So, in summary, the phenomenon of weight gain during this pandemic is real. Most of the studies have suggested that the weight gain is modest. However, any weight gain can impact health, both from lipid profile changes to increases in blood pressure, but also, importantly, in deregulating blood glucose levels and insulin resistance.

Research suspect that once we go back to our everyday living and we come out of this lockdown, much of the weight that has been gained will probably be lost because of our increased activities, our better eating habits, and also the reduction of stress.

Certainly, trying to avoid gaining weight during this period is important. So we would ask people to try and stay as mindful as they possibly can in these difficult times. To make sure that they protect their liver by not over consuming processed food and alcohol, to try and feed their gut as much as they can with nutrients and fibre where possible which is so important for healthy immune function. Also to stimulate your muscles when you can to try and give the cells within the muscles a bit of a kicking so that they can improve their metabolism and aid overall body detoxification. But most of all to stay safe!

So is lockdown all bad news? Not at all! One benefit that could come from this lockdown is that families are sitting down to eat together when they wouldn’t have done previously. Plus we are provided with the time to cook healthy meals.

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