There's a reason the phrase "the quarantine 19" has become a thing.
In the midst of the stress and uncertainty of this pandemic, people have done what people do when we get stressed: eat (and not just kale).
Besides driving so many of us to stress-eat our feelings, the pandemic has also made healthy eating much more difficult. Many people are facing loss of income, as well as supply chain issues and stay-at-home orders that have made access to healthy food more challenging. Home life has become increasingly hard to balance, with the boundaries between work, school and home getting blurry—all of which also has the effect of making it harder to plan and cook healthful meals.
So if you are feeling like your wellness habits have suffered during the pandemic, it is essential that you give yourself grace—and know that you are not alone.
A recent study of nearly 8,000 people in the United States, Australia, Canada, Ireland and the United Kingdom found that about 1/3 of people have gained weight during the pandemic. Previous studies have found that the number may be higher; for example, in the spring, 63% of people in the UK reported struggling with their weight during the pandemic.
People have been cooking at home more, which can lead to healthier eating, but overall, people surveyed felt their eating habits had gotten less healthy during the pandemic. For example, nearly 50% of the people in the study had increased their unhealthy snacking.
Eating isn't the only component of health that has suffered during the pandemic: There's been a major uptick in sedentary behavior (i.e. not moving as much), people are sleeping (a lot) worse, and our mental health is hurting—there's a spike in anxiety right now.
Are we surprised by any of this? We are not.
The question becomes, what are we going to do about it?
First—and this is really important—weight gain is not necessarily unhealthy. Some people want or need to gain weight as part of their health improvement plan. And so often, weight and body mass index (BMI) are just numbers and not indicators that a person is unhealthy.
Robert H. Shmerling, MD and Senior Faculty Editor of Harvard Health Publishing writes, "It's important to recognize that BMI itself is not measuring 'health' or a physiological state (such as resting blood pressure) that indicates the presence (or absence) of disease. It is simply a measure of your size. Plenty of people have a high or low BMI and are healthy and, conversely, plenty of folks with a normal BMI are unhealthy."
Simply put, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to health. My suggestion: Find a holistically minded, evidence-based (and nice) healthcare provider or nutritionist who can help you determine what your markers of health are.
Crystal Karges is Motherly's Nutrition Expert. She's a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and is passionate about this topic. Here's what she had to say:
"For many of us, food is a predictable safe-haven, a source of reliable comfort when everything else seems to have gone completely haywire. This has become especially true during one of the most trying years of our lifetimes. Our bodies are hardwired for survival and meant to adapt and change as needed over time to keep us alive. For many of us, this may include weight gain, especially when coming out of a season of quarantining due to the pandemic.
"Sadly, diet culture automatically associates weight gain or being in a larger body as something so unhealthy that it should be avoided at all costs. But this mentality simply doesn't align with our natural biology and the simple fact that our bodies are meant to change. When we demonize eating for comfort and body changes, we deny ourselves from the very things that make us human and that allow us to survive. Your body may have changed in ways that feel uncomfortable or unfamiliar, but this doesn't make you any less deserving of compassion and self-respect.
"Approaching yourself from a place of guilt or shame over the foods you've eaten or how much you weigh can increase your risk of engaging in behaviors that are far worse for your overall mental AND physical health than weight gain alone. And when our bodies change or weight is gained, it's worth remembering that health is not measured by weight alone. Health is a broader picture that entails so many different factors, including our overall mental wellness, the quality of our relationships, stress management and more."
So that being said, I am going to shift the focus away from losing weight and toward reclaiming your health; and YOU get to decide what that means for you.
Two things are simultaneously true here: We can be gentle towards ourselves and our (understandable) physical changes AND take steps to move towards a more optimal healthy state of being.
Because the truth is that health has never been more important—scientists have found that people with certain underlying medical conditions (hypertension, heart disease and diabetes to name a few) are more at risk of suffering a severe illness if infected by COVID-19. Hospitals are becoming more and more crowded, so it's in our best interest to stay out of them right now (by not getting COVID and by staying otherwise healthy). And honestly, we deserve it. We deserve to feel good, especially right now.
But goals of losing weight and even being healthy are so often punitive in their focus. We feel guilty for "making bad choices." We feel criticized by society. We feel "not good enough." And I will tell you right now that none of those things are healthy. So I am rejecting those messages, and I invite you to do the same.
I can't tell you what you need to do to feel and be healthier—only you and your provider can determine that. What I can tell you is that you probably need to be a lot gentler on yourself in your quest to get there.
As I share in The Motherly Guide to Becoming Mama, "We can take small steps toward changing cultural attitudes around body shame by focusing on our own personal attitude, and by shifting our mindset, a little every day, to get closer to one that celebrates our bodies rather than degrades them."
Karges said, "Instead of engaging in behaviors that attempt to manipulate your weight or body size, try approaching your body from a place of compassion and respect. It's the one place that's been your home for your whole life, and it's worth caring for with the utmost gentleness and gratitude. To say that it's been hard to get through almost an entire year of a global pandemic is an understatement. The only thing that could make it harder is piling on unnecessary food guilt and body shame. You're a survivor. Let your body be a place of appreciation and celebration for everything it's brought you through."
So how can we focus on nourishing our bodies with delicious foods instead of depriving them? (I'm looking at you, diets.)
How can we honor the work our bodies are doing every day and help them be healthy while not degrading ourselves because my goodness we don't need life to be any harder than it is right now?
Here are 3 simple (but incredibly meaningful) ways to start:
1. Drink more water.
You are probably dehydrated—75% of Americans are, and it's impacting us more than we realize. Dehydration can lead to fatigue, headaches, poor digestion, bloating, constipation and so much more. You may find that just by increasing your fluid intake, you feel remarkably better every day.
But how much water should you drink?
The standard answer is eight 8-ounce glasses a day, but that may not actually be enough. Some experts recommend the following calculation: a half an ounce to an ounce of water per pound you weigh. Someone who weighs 150 pounds would aim to drink 75 to 150 ounces of water a day.
2. Eat more plants.
Research is finding that plant-based diets have numerous health benefits, but the term plant-based diet is often misunderstood. A plant-based diet means a diet that is mostly plants—it might be vegan (free of all animal products) but it also might not—plenty of people who have plant-based diets eat meat and dairy products. (Also, of note, vegan diets aren't automatically healthy: Oreos are vegan…and really delicious.)
Still, switching to a plant-based diet can feel daunting, especially right now with the access and stress issues previously mentioned. So, how can we think simply about eating more plants? I mean really simply: Can you add one snack a day that consists of a fruit or veggie? Can you substitute one side at dinner for a veggie-based option?
(Need some inspiration? These plant-based recipes were written for Thanksgiving but will be delicious year-round.)
3. Move your body in a way that feels good.
We all know we need to exercise—it's the doing that's hard...really hard.
I often get intimidated by working out, or feel that it's an all-or-nothing thing: If I can't do a full hour of intense cardio (and I can never do a full hour of intense cardio) I may as well not do anything at all. But that's not true. Any movement is good movement and even 5 minutes can help you to be healthier and feel better.
See if you can stop thinking of exercise as a chore and more as a joyful part of your day. What do you love to do? Dance? Stretch? Walk? Jump around and sing with your kids? Excellent! Do that! Focus on the way the movement makes you feel, and take time to appreciate it (and yourself).
Here's the thing about wellness: It begets itself. Tiny little modifications to our habits, especially when done from a place of self-love rather than a place of "ugh society says I have to do this" make a difference—and you'll feel better, so you'll feel inspired to do more, and on and on.
So please, stop being so hard on yourself. You are doing the best you can during a pandemic; that alone is more than enough. Love yourself and love your body. It's working really hard for you—be kind to it.