May 21, 2020 -- Life in lockdown has disrupted all our lives, creating the perfect setup for putting on pounds. While social media users jokingly refer to it as the “Quarantine 15,” Rae Brager estimates she’s gained about 8 pounds since her quarantine started.
“When this all started, I thought, ‘Oh, maybe I’d better get some junk food because we'll be bored and freaked out and it's good to have comfort food,’” says Brager, 40, a pediatrician and mom of two in Toronto. “That ballooned, and now it’s around and available. None of my pants fit.”
Researchers say it’s too soon to say for sure how widespread the weight gain really is. William Dietz, MD, PhD, chair of the Sumner M. Redstone Global Center for Prevention and Wellness at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health, says staying indoors means most people are less active, and many are eating more ultra-processed foods than they might otherwise. Add the anxiety that comes with a deadly pandemic, and you’ve got an ideal situation for weight gain, he says.
In a poll of more than 1,000 U.S. readers of WebMD, nearly half of the women and almost one-quarter of the men said they’d gained weight “due to COVID restrictions.” A separate poll of 900 international readers found more than half of men and about a third of women reporting weight gain.
In the last 30 days, more than half a million Facebook users have engaged with terms around quarantine weight gain, including quarantine 15 and #quarantineweight gain.
For those who already struggled with obesity, gaining weight during the COVID-19 pandemic adds more risk. “Early on, we noticed that all of our patients who were immediately intubated at our institution and others had BMIs over 35,” says Caroline Apovian, MD, director of the Nutrition and Weight Management Center at Boston Medical Center. “And they were younger.” Preliminary research published in The Lancet has also found this connection.
And while calling it the “Quarantine 15” may sound cute, this phenomenon bears little resemblance to the weight some college students put on during their freshman year. And it can have much more dangerous effects.
“The ‘Freshman 15’ is typically paralleled with fun -- you’ve gone off to school by yourself, no parents, you just want to party,” says Kristin Kirkpatrick, a dietitian at the Cleveland Clinic. What we’re experiencing, on the other hand, has nothing fun about it. Plus, if a substantial number of people emerge from quarantine having gained a lot of weight, it could have a significant effect on public health. Dietz says.
The Quarantine Diet: More Sugar, Carbs, Alcohol
Some data show that people are eating more foods that may contribute to weight gain. Website Lose It! reported a 266% increase in candy eating in the last 2 weeks of March, compared to February, among its 1.4 million monthly active members, along with an increase in eating carb-heavy foods like bread (54%) and noodles (36%). Data provided by WW (formerly Weight Watchers) shows their members are using the app to record they’re using and consuming almost 40% more baking ingredients like flour than they did before the lockdown.
Among WebMD readers, 70% in the U.S. and 35% internationally cited “stress eating” as a cause of their weight gain.
One thing the “Freshman 15” and the “Quarantine 15” have in common: Alcohol. Just as young college students may lean on drinking to get them through challenging situations, many of us are doing that right now. One report showed that sales of alcoholic beverages went up 55% in the early days of the lockdown. And drinking tends to make you gain weight, says Kirkpatrick. First, you’ve got all those empty calories. And then there’s the way it loosens your inhibitions, including those related to eating. “After two glasses of wine with dinner,” she says, “healthy eating goes out the window.” Finally, alcohol messes with your sleep -- you may fall asleep quickly, but you probably won’t sleep soundly. “The next day, you can’t stop eating,” she says.
In the WebMD reader polls, 21% in the U.S. and 17% internationally blamed their weight gain on alcohol.
For Brager, food takes the place of alcohol. “Every little thing is another thing to be worried about, and there’s no comfort in any of it except at the end of the day,” she says. “I’d rather eat a bag of candy than have yet another adult beverage. Those are my vices, and I have to choose between them.”
Then there’s our newfound sedentary lifestyle. With gyms and other facilities closed, you’re forced to find your own way to work out. The activity that comes with going to work, even a desk job -- getting to your workplace, physically going to meetings, and so on -- has disappeared. The pedometer that used to show thousands of steps each day might now show only hundreds. And if you’re a parent, supervising your children’s schooling while working from a carved-out corner of your home, not to mention preparing every single meal, can be exhausting. More than 70% of WebMD readers in the U.S. and internationally reported lack of exercise as a reason for their weight gain.
“The days are long but also very short,” says Brager. “Time just evaporates, and I’m finding it hard to muster energy to exercise.”
Some Gain, Some Lose
That weight gain isn’t universal. The maker of an internet-connected scale found that users had gained only .21 pounds in the first month of the lockdown. And while its users might not reflect the population as a whole, weight loss experts do say they’re seeing a fair number of people who are continuing to lose.
According to data provided by Lose It!, it’s users have lost less weight on average this March and April compared to the same months in 2019.
“Some of the people I’m talking to are losing weight because they’re not going to restaurants any more. They’ve taken this opportunity to start cooking healthy meals at home,” says Apovian. “And they’re not running to the corner store at 8 p.m. for junk food.”
Kirkpatrick is also seeing some patients lose weight. “Think about how we habitually do behaviors the same way based on cues,” she says. “Now you’re not walking by a co-worker’s candy dish, or going to Starbucks for coffee and saying, ‘Man, that pastry looks good.’ You don’t have those cues to overeat.”
Both women point out that these people are likely doing well because they were already getting help with their eating -- they’d been setting themselves up to handle a situation like a quarantine.
In the U.S. WebMD reader poll, nearly half said they had gained 1 to 6 pounds.
How to Regain Control
Nobody knows when COVID-19 lockdowns will end for good. So if this is going to be the new normal, how can you rebuild some of the healthy habits that went with the old normal?
- Change the narrative. “Instead of thinking about the ‘Quarantine 15,’ look at this as an opportunity to lose weight,” says Kirkpatrick. “Do you throw your arms up and say, ‘This stinks and I'm going to give up?’ Or do you say, ‘This is a huge opportunity for change, and I'm going to rise to the occasion? I'm going to be healthier and live longer because of what we're going through now.’”
- Adjust your setup. Get your office out of the kitchen, Kirkpatrick says. “If you must be near food while working, set a schedule for yourself, like you can’t open the fridge before 10. Give yourself the structure you’d have in a normal workday.”
- Focus on easy meals. Even though we’re not going out, this new life feels exhausting. At the end of a long day, it may seem easier to just get takeout. But getting a simple, healthy meal on the table doesn’t have to take a long time or effort. A pot of whole-grain pasta topped with a good-quality jarred sauce can be on the table in less than half an hour. An omelet stuffed with garlicky sautéed mushrooms can be ready even sooner.
- Shop smarter. Stock up on inexpensive staples like canned beans and tomatoes, whole grains, and frozen vegetables. And before you head out, think about what you’d like to eat for the next 2 weeks and write up a list. Include the snacks you want on the list, and stick to it, to avoid comfort-food impulse buys.
- Try meal planning. Living in quarantine means you can’t just run out to the store if you’re missing an ingredient. Instead, look at what you have on hand ahead of time and build meals around it.
- Step outside. You don’t need a daily 6-mile hike with your family to improve your health. “We have studies showing that even 20 minutes in nature reduces cortisol, which can help with eating habits,” says Kirkpatrick. And it doesn’t even have to be 20 minutes. “When you feel like you want to go and just eat the entire fridge, go outside for 10 minutes, go on your deck, go in your front yard, whatever the case may be, but give yourself a diversion from the food.”
- Get some help. If you don’t feel like you can get things under control on your own, a single telemedicine consult with a dietitian might help. “Every approach needs to be individualized,” Kirkpatrick says. “That can really make someone more likely to succeed.”
Above all, Kirkpatrick says, we should assume that some version of our lockdown lifestyle will continue for a while. “I tell my patients to adjust to the current environment in a positive manner so that when we go back to ‘normal,’ be it 3 months or 3 years from now, we emerge healthier.”