Concerned About Pandemic Weight Gain? Here’s What a Dietitian Says You Should Do

·6 min read

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The first time you go to put on real pants in 2021, you may notice they fit a little bit tighter. If so, you're not alone. 37% of Americans say that they gained weight during the pandemic, according to a recent survey (and the actual number may be higher). It's not really that surprising—we've been living through a very stressful time. So what can you do about it? I would advise you to skip the crash diets, or any strict diet for that matter. 

You will likely start seeing more ads for weight-loss treatments as the diet industry is ready to bounce back—but you can say no to expensive diet plans and still live a happy and healthy life. Consider this a friendly reminder that your weight doesn't equal health. You survived a global pandemic and a stressful year. You—and your body—deserve a little grace and a lot of kindness. Instead of diving into another crash diet, cleanse or detox focus on ways you can nourish yourself by choosing more foods that make you feel good. Here are some tips to keep things in perspective and maybe get back to some healthier habits.

Related: 5 Small Healthy Habits to Adopt Now With a Big Impact

Reminder: the pandemic is real and your body responded

I am so excited to make plans and hug people again after a very isolated 15 months. While the pandemic is still really bad in parts of the world, it does seem like things are starting to look up in the United States as more people get vaccinated and case counts drop. The CDC announced new guidelines for fully vaccinated people recently and it feels like we can make plans to be out and about safely moving forward.

But, the pandemic profoundly impacted all of us. Many people lost someone they loved, were laid off, got sick, worried about their safety and grappled with isolation. At the very least, you probably experienced a sense of scarcity when it comes to food—especially in the beginning when grocery stores were frequently out of foods and we weren't sure when our next trip to stock up was going to be (remember the great toilet paper shortage?!?). You may have wondered how you were going to afford your next meal or feed your family. Not having enough food can cause your body to want to eat more—it's a protective mechanism to help prevent starvation. All that to say, if coming out of the pandemic the worst thing that happened is you're up a few pounds, you're pretty lucky. It may not feel that way right now, but it is important to keep things in perspective.

Video: Nonprofit donated more than 30,000 pounds of food during pandemic

Your habits changed and they will change again 

One pandemic upside for many of us? Comfy pants. One downside? Comfy pants. They are very comfortable and very forgiving. In addition to wardrobe changes, you probably became a little more sedentary and a little more snacky over the past year. Working from home might mean fewer steps or you may have cancelled your gym membership. In lieu of packing up healthy lunches you may be raiding your pantry more for snacks. Those habits that may have made your weight creep up, are going to change. It won't happen overnight, but returning to normalcy means a return to being out and about and changing your eating habits. You will likely be moving more (even just parking farther away or commuting out of your home will lead to more daily movement). We will get back out of the house and pack lunches and snacks again. The weight you gained likely crept on and it's not realistic to expect to drop it immediately for your first big night out in over a year. (Here are 6 habits to break if you're trying to lose weight.)

Diets don't work 

I wish they did, but research shows that diets don't work. Most people gain the weight back that they lost and then some. I know it's tempting to drink some shakes or cut out all carbs (looking at you keto) but those changes aren't sustainable. If you start to make choices you can't stick with you'll likely just gain back any weight when you go off your diet. It's one reason why the Mediterranean diet is a top diet choice year after year. It's not really a diet, just a healthy eating pattern that focus on vegetables, fruits, whole grains, seafood, legumes and healthy fats.

We're playing the long game here folks. I know that's not what you want to hear if you're itching to fit into a dress for an upcoming event or look impressive for an epic reunion but most people you'll see won't care what you look like—they'll just be happy to see you.  

What can you do instead? 

First off, changing your mindset can be so helpful. Instead of fixating on a number on a scale, try to change one habit a week to help yourself get healthier. Perhaps you add a vegetable to dinner or squeeze in 3, 10-minute walks every day. I like to think of this as addition rather than subtraction (for example, add in a whole-grain carbohydrate, like barley or whole-wheat pasta, rather than cut carbs out). There are a few other habits I find can be very helpful but you have to pick what works for you. 

  • Focus on fat, fiber and protein. These three nutrients up the satisfaction factor of your meals so you're less likely to experience blood sugar swings and you'll feel fuller longer. Choose healthy fats, like nuts and avocados, add fiber to meals, from whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and aim to include a protein source at most meals and snacks. 

  • Get your fruits and veggies in! When in doubt, add produce. Most of us don't get enough in our diet (and yes, dried, canned and frozen count!). Stir spinach into eggs, keep baby carrots around for easy snacking and make a smoothie to help yourself hit your produce goals. (Here are 5 easy ways to eat more vegetables.)

  • Stay hydrated. Drink more water. Enough said. And while you're at it, you may want to cut down on alcohol. Moderate drinking is no more than one drink a day for women, and no more than two drinks a day for men. (Here's what happens to your body when you quit drinking.)

  • Move your body. If you hate jumping rope or pushups look like torture—find something else! Movement isn't one size fits all but there are so many benefits to regular exercise. Start slowly, but start! (Here's why exercise is good for your mental health.)