Worried about 'quarantine 15'? Now's not the time to stress about the scale

It's OK if you've put on a few extra pounds. A dietitian explains why — and what to do instead of worrying about quarantine weight gain.
Female leg stepping on weigh scales. Healthy lifestyle, food and sport concept.
Worrying about gaining a few pounds during a pandemic only adds to your stress.Getty Images stock

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By Samantha Cassetty, RD

With quarantine baking and comfort eating on the rise, and with gyms and fitness studios still mostly closed due to the coronavirus crisis, it’s no wonder that worries about the so-called "quarantine 15" (think: "freshman 15") are surfacing.

Weight concerns are deeply rooted in our culture, but the truth is, you have a lot to worry about right now, from staying healthy and homeschooling your kids to finances and shopping for groceries. Worrying about gaining a few pounds during a pandemic only adds to your stress. Here’s why you should stress less about quarantine weight gain.

You might not have access to everything on your grocery list

Even if you have a solid grocery game plan in place, pictures of empty shelves and reports of hard-to-come-by delivery spots tell a story: You might not be able to get all the fresh, frozen and canned produce or other ingredients you usually buy to create well-balanced meals. This is an unprecedented time and it calls for a lot of compassion and grace. Be proud of yourself that you’re doing the best you can.

Exercise doesn’t burn as many calories as you think

Don’t sweat it if you’re not doing hard core HIIT workouts in your living room. The reality is that exercise isn’t that helpful when it comes to losing weight. Studies suggest that when you participate in a sweat session, you unknowingly compensate for the extra work by either eating a little more (because you’re hungrier) or moving a little less (because your body worked hard enough) throughout the day. Plus, even if you go out for a 30-minute run, the average woman burns about 260 calories — not that much more than the typical protein bar that you might snack on afterward. Exercise has far-reaching health benefits, but don’t expect exercise alone to nudge the scale much.

Your body is smarter than you think

If you listen, your body will tell you when it’s hungry, when it’s thirsty, when your mind needs some entertainment, when your nerves need calming and when you need sleep. The trouble is that we often ignore these signals. If you open up the lines of communication, you might discover that as your activity levels slow down, so does your appetite, or you might find that an emotional need is driving your hunger, in which case, you might be better served by turning to a non-food alternative.

Dieting may add to your stress levels

In one study, monitoring food intake was linked with an increase in stress levels and cutting calories was linked with an increase in the stress hormone, cortisol. While this may not be true for everyone, it’s good evidence that worrying about your weight can make you more miserable during an already difficult time.

Here’s what you can do

News of the coronavirus reminds us daily that those who are most vulnerable include people with chronic conditions, like diabetes and heart disease, that are related to diet and lifestyle factors. So while you shouldn’t worry about your weight, it’s still a good idea to live as healthfully as possible. Here are some ways you can do that.

  • Give up grazing. When you’re constantly picking at food, you’re undermining your own hunger and fullness cues because you’re never allowing yourself to become moderately hungry or comfortably full.
  • Pay more attention to your hunger and fullness levels. Begin to gauge your hunger. Can you find the zone where you feel somewhat hungry rather than unpleasantly hangry? Or how it feels to be reasonably full rather than uncomfortably so?
  • Develop skills to deal with emotional hunger. Food can certainly be a source of comfort, and it’s natural and 100 percent healthy to eat for reasons other than hunger sometimes, but once you learn to listen to what your body is telling you, you can answer the call with what it really needs. For example, when you’re tired, go to bed a little earlier and when you’re feeling restless, find a change in scenery, whether that’s heading to a different room or heading outside.
  • Try a new recipe. Start to tailor your taste toward nutritious meals by exploring new recipes. Do a recipe search by listing the ingredients you have available into the search field.
  • Get some movement in your day. You don’t have to be drenched in sweat to get the health- and mood-boosting benefits of exercise. And remember, some beats none!
  • Create helpful routines. Set up your work-from-home station in a room other than the kitchen or bedroom, if possible. Your kitchen is a zone for eating and your bedroom a zone for sleeping, so find another zone for working.
  • Do a social media diet. Studies suggest that spending a lot of time on social media is linked with anxiety and depression and body image concerns. If you’re constantly checking your social feeds for likes or if the feeds you follow lead you to feel like you should lose weight or use your quarantine time to get ultra-fit, find the mute or unfollow buttons and use them. That goes for accounts that make offensive COVID-weight gain jokes, too.
  • Learn to appreciate your body. Your health isn’t just about the nutritious foods you’re eating or the ways that you’re staying active — it’s also about how you talk to and about yourself. To tap into more appreciation, try positive affirmations. Studies suggest this practice may help boost your self-esteem and enable you to buffer stress better.