If you've experienced pandemic weight gain, you're not alone. In its latest Stress in America Poll™, the APA found that 42% of U.S. adults put on unintentional weight during the pandemic. (The average amount gained was 29 pounds.) (1)
A WebMD poll of 1,012 readers showed similar results, with around 47% of U.S. women and 22% of men reporting they had gained weight during the COVID-19 shutdowns and other restrictions. (2)
Packing on extra pounds is perhaps not surprising, considering the pandemic upended many people's lives, often destroying their regular schedules. However, putting on too much weight can be dangerous to your health and increase the severity of COVID-19 symptoms.
In a recent meta-analysis of 208 studies, researchers concluded: "Being overweight increases the risk of COVID-19-related hospitalizations but not death, while obesity and extreme obesity increase the risk of both COVID-19-related hospitalizations and death." (3)
Being overweight or obese also increases the risk of type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure (hypertension), heart disease, stroke, sleep apnea, fatty liver diseases, gallbladder diseases, osteoarthritis, kidney disease, and some cancers. (4)
Stress: Major Causes of COVID-19 Pandemic Weight
The most significant cause of pandemic weight increase is chronic stress, which impacts the hunger hormones. Interestingly, most COVID-enforced lifestyle changes also affect one or more of these hormones.
COVID-19 Pandemic, Stress, Hormones, and Weight Gain
People worldwide are under enormous, unending stress, especially during the first year of the pandemic.
There were sudden lockdowns, changes in routines, ever-increasing death and infection numbers scrolled across the bottom of TV programs...all of which increased stress levels. And stress affects several weight control hormones.
Chronic stress is associated with chronically elevated cortisol levels, a hormone that promotes fat storage in the abdomen. Why?
During physical or emotional stress, the hypothalamus in the brain sends a message to the pituitary gland to release cortisol and adrenaline.
These hormones trigger a release of glucose to give the body energy to fight or flee what it perceives as an impending threat. Once the danger has passed, glucose levels return to normal.
However, if the stress continues and becomes chronic, the cortisol and glucose levels remain elevated. Therefore, any glucose not needed for energy is converted into fat and stored in the abdomen.
This makes weight loss difficult.
In addition, though acute stress often shuts down the appetite, chronic stress is associated with unhealthy eating habits.
This includes disordered eating, increased hunger, and cravings for high-fat foods and sugars, also known as comfort foods. It can even trigger binge eating - the opposite of weight loss or maintaining a healthy setpoint.
Chronically elevated glucose levels also trigger higher insulin levels, a "fat-storage" hormone responsible for shuttling glucose to the cells for immediate energy. Any excess glucose is stored in the muscles and liver first.
Once this storage space is full, insulin converts it to fat, creating new fat cells for storage.
When you need energy, insulin tells your body to burn stored fat. But with chronically high glucose levels, insulin prevents stored fat from being broken down and used for energy.
Instead, it just keeps converting excess glucose into fat. This can lead to weight gain and increase your risk of type 2 diabetes.
The hunger hormone ghrelin may also play a role in stress-induced appetite. Research shows that chronic stress triggers an increase in glucocorticoid, which raises circulating ghrelin levels.
The result can be insatiable hunger leading to excess calorie consumption. (5)
Leptin is another hormone that helps regulate appetite. Generated by the fat cells, leptin signals your brain when you're full so that you'll stop eating.
So it makes sense that overweight and obese individuals would be deficient in leptin, causing them to overeat, but the opposite is true.
Those with weight issues often have an overabundance of leptin in their bloodstreams, but their brains do not recognize its signals. This condition is called "leptin resistance."
It turns out that the increased glucocorticoid secretions in chronic stress also stimulate continual leptin release that can lead to leptin and insulin resistance. The latter leads to chronically elevated glucose levels.
So, chronic stress can trigger a vicious circle of hormonal reactions that lead to pandemic weight issues.
Other Covid-19 Pandemic-Related Factors that Affect Hunger Hormones Causing Gained Weight
Poor-quality diet. Foods like refined grains, refined sugars, fast foods, and highly processed foods -- i.e., comfort foods -- are quickly digested, leading to a spike in blood glucose and insulin, followed by a release of cortisol once blood sugar levels fall.
Lack of exercise. The pandemic made exercise difficult or impossible for many people. This is unfortunate because research suggests that regular exercise makes cells more sensitive to insulin, reducing glucose levels and fat storage.
Poor sleep. Research shows that sleep deprivation may increase cortisol levels and decrease insulin sensitivity, (6) thereby promoting unhealthy dietary habits and excess belly fat.
Isolation. During the first year of the pandemic, many people were forced into isolation, working from home, ordering their groceries delivered, avoiding physical contact with friends and family members. Social isolation and loneliness are associated with elevated cortisol levels, leading to gained weight and obesity (measured by body mass index and other factors).
Here are a few easy fixes to help you lose weight.
Eat High-Quality Foods
You don't have to reduce calorie intake significantly to lose those extra pounds. In fact, severe calorie restriction causes your body to hold onto that fat.
Instead of reducing food intake, concentrate on eating more high-quality foods.
Foods like lean protein and non-starchy vegetables fill you up fast and keep you full for a long time. In addition, protein triggers your short- and long-term satiety hormones, and digesting it burns many calories.
Speaking of calories...you'll probably eat fewer of them on a high-quality diet than you did during the pandemic because they're so filling. Healthy eating like this will lead to easy, stress-free weight loss.
Try to perform some physical activity every day. If you've been living a sedentary lifestyle, try to ease yourself into exercising again and go slowly.
Please remember that strenuous exercise increases cortisol levels, so you may want to start with leisurely activities like walking around the block or taking a leisurely bicycle ride. Yoga is also a relaxing way to get into shape and lose weight.
Take a little time every day to relieve stress. Some great stress relievers include:
Meeting friends for lunch or dinner
Binge-watching comedy series on Netflix. (Laughter is one of the BEST stress relievers.)
Snuggling with your dog or cat
Take up knitting or crochet
Listen to soothing music
Practice deep-breathing or progressive muscle relaxation exercises
Get More Sleep
Good-quality sleep is essential to weight loss and maintenance. Here are a few ways to get better sleep.
Go to bed at the same time every night. A consistent sleeping schedule is critical, as it trains your body to start getting tired near bedtime.
Avoid devices before bed. The blue light emitted from device screens interferes with melatonin production. So, to cultivate a good night's sleep, you may want to put away your devices an hour before bedtime.
Make sure your bedroom temperature is cool. Sleeping in a cool temperature -- around 65-68 degrees -- helps you fall asleep faster. It also helps your body produce more melatonin.
Reduce light in your bedroom. Any light can interfere with melatonin production, even if it's coming from the neon numbers on your alarm clock. So, you might want to turn your alarm clock away from you, put black drapes on your window, or wear a sleep mask to bed.
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