How pandemic stress is causing many to gain the ‘COVID 15’ — and how to avoid it

Health

CHICAGO (WGN) — As the pandemic continues to greatly affect everyday life, many people say they have packed on extra pounds during the pandemic, with stress and anxiety playing a major role.

Nutrition experts however say there is a scientific explanation for the overeating.

“I could feel myself being out of control with my eating, but it was very hard to get it back under control during that time,” Dana Hill said.

As millions have mostly stayed inside for months, many have indulged, alcohol not withstanding.

“At some point I started making myself cocktails like cosmos to celebrate things,” Hill said.

Now, Hill is looking to end the party and get back on track with a healthier lifestyle.

“In May I was probably the highest weight I’ve ever been in my entire life. So, I gained about five to seven pounds at that time and also was not really exercising very regularly,” Hill said.

At home, Hill was stocked up on impulse items.

“I ended up buying a lot of things I wouldn’t normally eat, like for instance I bought a big block of Kraft cheddar cheese and I found myself eating it at 2 in the morning just to comfort myself which was very out of the ordinary,” Hill said.

Turns out, there is chemistry behind the cravings.

“Our brain does crave more starchy carbs, sugary foods when we are stressed out because we’re releasing more cortisol in the brain, so that’s why we want these comfort foods when we are under stress or anxiety,” registered dietician Vicki Shanta Retelny said.

In the short term, the carbs and sugar actually do help calm the release of the known stress hormone. It is the long-term effects that are less palatable.

“In the long term it does cause weight gain. It does cause potential health issues with blood sugar control and sleeplessness.”

Hill, a 46-year-old law professor, sought the guidance of Retelny, who has seen an uptick in COVID-19-related weight gain.

Retelny is helping Hill develop new habits, such as meal planning and making grocery lists.

“I do think it helps me not to do those impulse purchases so I’m not buying as many cookies or blocks of cheese as I was earlier, but I have to schedule a time for myself to write out my meal plan and plan out when I’m going to do my cooking,” Hill said.

Retelny said a plan is key to success, one that includes fiber, protein and healthy fats, as opposed to a fad diet.

Northshore University Health System registered dietician Emmaline Rasmussen said shame should be taken off the table.

“Many people have gone through this uncharted territory and it has been very challenging for many of us,” Rasmussen said.

Rasmussen encouraged those struggling to try to resume exercise on a regular basis and to not let snacking derail the effort.

Proud grandfather Bob Klein looked to stay in step with his already healthy lifestyle during the pandemic, but was not immune to the struggles of being inside all day.

“Being at home and being near the kitchen all day long it’s just natural. People talk about the COVID ’19’, I don’t know if I had the 19 but I had the COVID a bunch,” Klein said.

Rasmussen said changes in snack habits can make a great difference.

“Reaching for fruit or nuts or beans and lentil chips for instance,” Rasmussen said.

For Klein, a modified keto diet, sans the high-fat foods, helps keep up his energy and mood.

“I made a really important change during COVID and that is I’m not weighing myself anymore,” Klein said.

Klein added that frequent exercise is vital to maintaining his lifestyle.

“It’s about exercising every single day and if I don’t get outside everyday, I feel miserable,” Klein said.

Dana Hill is back to exercising too, taking an optimistic view of the days ahead.

“I think probably for me, trying to not be too hard on myself. It’s a very difficult time right now and sometimes eating those cookies really does make you feel better,” Hill said.

Retelny reminded those struggling to remain vigilant with their health.

“This is not the time to be thinking about throwing in the towel with your health. It’s the time to really focus on your health and your wellness and to keep your immune system supported,” Retelny said.

Latest coronavirus headlines

© 1998 - 2021 Nexstar Inc. | All Rights Reserved.