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Why people lost weight during the pandemic and how to keep the momentum going

Many Americans found a healthier lifestyle last year, experts say.
Many people listened to the self-care message during the pandemic, exploring healthier recipes and cooking at home.
Many people listened to the self-care message during the pandemic, exploring healthier recipes and cooking at home.Mireya Acierto / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

The enduring legend of the "quarantine 15" — the amount of pounds some Americans gained due to the stress of the pandemic — hides a surprising reality: Lots of people actually lost weight during the crisis and most maintained it.

Researchers at Epic Health Research Network analyzed the electronic medical records of more than 15 million patients in the year prior to the pandemic (March 2019 to March 2020) and almost 15 million patients over the course of the pandemic (April 2020 to March 2021).

A loss or gain of 2.5 pounds — considered a normal weight fluctuation or “no change” — was most common during both periods.

When it specifically came to the pandemic time frame, almost as many people lost weight, 35%, as gained it, 39%.

Why people lost weight

Emily Rubin, director of clinical dietetics at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, has seen patients on both sides of the spectrum and wasn’t surprised many slimmed down last year. We aren’t hearing as much about them because they’re not complaining about losing weight and not seeking medical care since they’re likely feeling better, she noted.

“Some people have definitely found a healthier lifestyle and there was that big focus during COVID on self-care — taking care of yourself, mental health, physical health,” Rubin told TODAY.

“I couldn't believe when I first was working from home … there were people outside walking that I've never even seen in my neighborhood before — just the amount of people who were outside to take advantage of that time.”

Exercise in general became a stress reliever — an escape from the grim realities of the world and sweat therapy of sorts for many people.

Singer Adele was a high-profile example, spending “many pandemic days and nights” working out at a gym — though slimming down was a byproduct, not the goal, of being so active, she told Vogue.

“It became my time. I realized that when I was working out, I didn’t have any anxiety. It was never about losing weight,” Adele said.

As they stopped commuting to work, many Americans also found extra time to exercise and cook healthier at home. Not going into an office meant avoiding unhealthy office food like donuts and fast-food lunches.

Samantha Talbot, a 28-year-old bride-to-be and one of Rubin’s patients, lost 70 during the pandemic. Before the crisis, her job meant irregular, rushed meal times and long days at work. But working from home changed that.

“I got to focus more on myself, something I probably haven't done in years,” Talbot recently told TODAY.

“When you get that time back, that is such valuable time where you can meal prep, exercise and do what you need to do for you,” Rubin added.

There may also have been a darker side to pandemic weight loss — stress causing a lack of appetite in some people.

How to keep the healthy momentum going:

As life gets back to normal and more people start commuting and returning to offices, Rubin worried they might resume old bad habits.

“It's so easy to go back into those unhealthy behavior patterns,” she said. “If you developed a healthy lifestyle during COVID — eating healthy, meal prepping — hopefully you'll continue with that because you feel so much better.”

Rubin offered this advice to stay on track:

Remember to eat a balanced breakfast that’s high in protein, such as eggs, and high in fiber, like oatmeal, to keep feeling full instead of grabbing a doughnut or pastry at work.

Make a colorful salad or leftovers for a midday meal, instead of overindulging when the office orders pizza or cheesesteaks for lunch. Stick to meal prepping when time allows.

Keep enjoying shelf-stable foods like canned beans, whole-grain pastas and frozen vegetables that were so popular to buy during the pandemic. They’re a healthy staple providing lots of nutrients such as fiber, protein, potassium and vitamin C.

Keep exploring healthy recipes to cook at home. Studies have found eating home-cooked meals was associated with better dietary quality and lower body fat.

Don't stop trying out exercise videos available online. There are so many free options to keep you moving on YouTube, everything from yoga and barre to cardio dance.

Set alarms and reminders to maintain healthy habits, such as regularly drinking water and getting up from your desk to move around.

Use weight-loss apps to log your calories and keep you more accountable. If you ate too much today, you can make an effort to get back on track tomorrow.