We are now living in uncertain times. None of us imagined to be in this situation. More than 3 million people have been infected with coronavirus and about 3 hundred thousand people have already died. Coronavirus pandemic has changed the way we think and it will change the way we live in future. Our priorities are going to significantly change.
We have now understood with isolation and social distancing, we need very little to live and a lot more to show off!
So, why am I talking about weight, when we should just think about survival and enjoy. Well, most of the people who died of corona virus infection were either obese or had obesity related medical conditions like type 2 diabetes and hypertension.Obesity was a strong predictor of hospitalisation and critical illness during this pandemic based on an article published by a team in New York.
Why do people gain weight in pandemics?
I am not going to discuss why people gain weight in normal circumstances. The last pandemic, the Spanish flu, had a significant impact on our life. This was more than a hundred years ago. We tend to forget and move on, which in fact may be a good thing. Several parts of the world have faced similar situations, where there was excessive stress, deviation from normal living and a threat to food scarcity.
Let us take one of the examples, where food was rationed for a prolonged period. The United States imposed a commercial, economic, and financial embargo against Cuba in 1962. This led to food shortage and rationing. Initially there was weight loss, followed by weight regain after the embargo was lifted. Eating behaviour among Cuban adults and restrain to eating changed in 2012, this may be the reason for weight gain. In the modern times we see this over and over again, with dieting. People whilst on diets restrict calorie consumption, irrespective of what diets they are on, invariably followed by weight regain. I have created a few videos to explain the reason for weight regain following dieting.
Causes for weight gain in the current coronavirus pandemic
We know there was panic buying during the initial phase of lockdown in nearly every country. This clearly shows that human beings’ attitude towards hunger has not changed in the last few million years.
Possible reasons for weight gain are listed below:
- Lack of exercise
- Emotional eating
- Binge watching
- Relationship problems
- Food insecurity
- Sleep deprivation
- Job insecurity
- Excessive alcohol consumption
- Increased consumption of energy dense food
Above list is not comprehensive. Supermarkets sales data has shown that alcohol consumption has significantly increased. Sales of Cider has gone up by 63% and overall there has been a increase in alcohol consumption by about 33% compared to last year. People have also been experimenting with different cooking methods. On television most of the channels are broadcasting cooking shows which encourage people to cook more, thereby fresh dough and pastry sales have gone up by about 110%.
Was this the weight loss season?
Generally in the western world people are preparing for the much awaited summer holidays. Motivation to lose weight is plenty, but in this season, top on the list is losing weight for summer holidays. I do not blame anyone except the marketing people who market holidays with beach bodies and slim girls. Women predominantly would like to lose weight to be more confident and/or wear a bikini. Now, with the holidays cancelled, there may be a complete lack of motivation to lose weight.
With the lockdown, all high street and designer wear shops are closed. People like wearing trendier clothes and thereby work harder to lose weight to fit into those clothes which are trending. Finally, There are lots of weight loss clubs ,where people meet in smaller groups and motivate one another, even though this has sadly been stopped.
On the whole weight loss, which is usually pronounced during the spring and summer months has been curtailed by coronavirus pandemic.
Why would people lose weight?
This looks like a straightforward question. People will lose weight when there is pandemic and food is short. Not so in western world. People will somehow get hold of food, and will be energy dense. It is highly unlikely any one will lose weight in the western world during this pandemic.
However, people who have had strong motivation to lose weight and were struggling to organise themselves due to time constraints, will get their acts together and lose weight. Even though the gyms have closed their doors, motivated people will always find a way to organise themselves and lose weight.
People in countries whose governments are not so effective at looking after the needy, will lose weight. We do read people in several countries where they have lost their jobs and are waiting in long queues for food. They will lose weight, but this is always followed by weight regain ,once the situation changes and food is easily available.
There has been a significant impact on mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic based on an article published in Lancet Psychiatry. There has been increased incidence and worsening of anxiety and depression during this pandemic compounded by social distancing and isolation. We know that some people emotionally eat during depression and anxiety but on the flip side, there are people who refrain from eating and lack appetite, leading to weight loss.
In addition, some of the reason mentioned above for weight gain, will also not surprisingly be applicable for weight loss:
- Relationship problems
- Food insecurity
- Sleep deprivation
- Job insecurity
- Excessive smoking
What can you do to prevent weight gain?
Most people who are reading his blog will have gained some weight. As we all know weight gain is easy and losing weight can be difficult. We also know that since we consume energy dense food, trying to burn it off with exercise is not going to be quick.
Let us do some imaginary calculations and find out how much activity we should be doing? Say, I have only four cookies a week. So, during this period of isolation of three months, I have approximately 50 cookies in all, and these were medium sized cookies. I have been told that each of these cookies are 120 calories. I have therefore consumed all 50×120=6000calories. My fitness trainer has calculated and based on my height and weight, I can burn around 60 calories by walking a mile. Therefore to burn all the cookies I have consumed, I have to walk 100 miles which will take me at least 6 months, because I have a lot of pending work to catch up after the pandemic comes to an end.
Please note, the above example was only with cookies, I must have had lots of other things combined with lack of exercise and binge watching. So, weight gain in the last few months will take me up to a year to sort out. Yes, I may lose faster if I adopt one of these fad diets. I know from experience that they do not do me good in the long run.
What is the solution?
Well, I am sure you are thinking like me, preventing weight gain is the first step. Following tips will help you prevent weight gain during this period of social distancing and isolation:
- Agree on a clear meal plan for the next day with your family
- Avoid sitting at one place for more than 20 minutes( prolonged sitting is the new cancer)
- Hydrate yourself with water or non sugary drink( always have a bottle of water with you)
- Plan and communicate regularly with family and friends daily
- Arrange activities with in the house, using YouTube videos.
- Ensure you have a plan to clean your house
- Do not compromise of sleep
- Use this opportunity to eat slow, Follow the rule or 20-20-20
- Drinkaware website provides useful advice of limiting alcohol consumption
- Always talk to people about your problems, do not keep to yourself.
To conclude, most people will have a tendency to gain weight. This can be prevented if you adapt the recommendations provided above. Most importantly, ensure you have support from family, friends and colleagues.
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Dr. C. Rajeswaran FRCP (UK); MSc Consultant Physician (Diabetes, obesity & Endocrinology)