Health

Will My Pandemic Weight Gain Hurt My Health?

There is always a lot of handwringing about "weight," but now it's reached an all-time high.
Hannah Smothers
Brooklyn, US
March 30, 2021, 12:00pm
Shopping during a pandemic. A young woman wearing protective mask and gloves shopping vegetable in a store.
Alex Potemkin via Getty

As vaccines become available to more and more people and the world around us steadily reopens, some of us have turned our concerns turn toward bodies that have been cozily hiding beneath sweatpants. Naturally, that anxiety is only getting worse in the face of rampant talk about “quarantine glow ups”  and headlines in the New York Times making broad generalizations about the amount of weight everyone has put on.

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Should we be surprised we gained weight in a year we were all sitting at home more out of necessity? And, more to the point, does it even matter? As several doctors and dietitians told VICE, it would be more surprising if folks didn’t gain weight this year, a year in which everyone sat more, was stressed out constantly, and slept irregularly. If you find yourself slightly heavier than you were a year ago, you’re far from alone, and, as doctors told VICE, from a health perspective, you don’t need to be too worried about it. 

Bodies are resilient, and as Leah Whigham, associate professor at UTHealth School of Public Health in El Paso, told VICE, and very much capable of bouncing back, if bouncing back is what you crave. 

“Weight is something that can be driven in either direction,” Whigham said. “If people gained weight because of the pandemic, it’s not the end of the world.” 

A context that’s missing from the Times story above (and most coverage that raises concern about pandemic weight gain) is that most adults put on a few pounds each year, as Whigman explained. “Keeping that in mind, let’s say someone gained five pounds over the course of the pandemic,” Whigham said. “That might only be three pounds more than they would have gained, otherwise.” It’s also extremely possible that you gained just as much weight this year as you did the year before, and only noticed it because, well, what else is there to do these days but obsess endlessly about the body that’s carried you through a year of worldwide distress? 

As W. Scott Butsch, director of obesity medicine at Cleveland Clinic’s Bariatric & Metabolic Institute, told VICE, from a medical perspective, pandemic weight gain is not something that needs to be worried about more than any other health metric, despite concern trolling about the “quarantine 15.” “We have a society that blames people for being overweight and we have a medical community that blames people for being overweight,” Butsch added. “But we can’t blame ourselves. We’ve all naturally gained weight.”

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Just like we can expect to slowly regain our ability to socialize and sleep at regular intervals, both Butsch and Whigham said that a return to normal routines—commuting, going to the gym, walking around outside, etc.—will lead to a return to “normal,” pre-pandemic weight. 

But even if not, a few extra pounds after a year in which survival was the name of the game is not the worst possible outcome, nor is it something worth feeling bad about. What every story about pandemic weight gain or the so-called “quarantine 15” gets wrong is an extreme focus on the number on the scale, rather than literally any other health metric. As Butsch explained, a person’s weight is only one measure of how healthy they are, and it’s not even a very good one. Other factors—like your ability to perform basic, daily tasks, and how good you feel doing them—are much more important than what the scale flashes back up at you. 

Rather than thinking about your body as a number on the scale, Sarah Adler, a psychiatrist at Stanford Health Care who specializes in eating disorders, emphasized thinking about your body in terms of what it can do. “Think about it as, Can my body do the things that I want my body to do at any given moment,” Adler said. “If you start approaching your body as a vehicle for what you can do in the world, rather than a number on a scale, that can go a long way in mitigating any shame.” 

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If the number on the scale feels insurmountable and bad, Adler recommended against continuing to look at it—a rule she gives to patients in recovery for eating disorders as well as for people with obesity. “Not only is weight not a static number year over year, but it’s not a static number day to day or week to week,” Adler said. “Don’t over index on that number; it’s just noise, and can create a huge shame spiral.” 

One slightly fun way to think about any weight you may have gained this year is as a sign of survival and successful coping. Both Adler and Elyse Resch, an anti-diet nutrition therapist and author of Intuitive Eating, mentioned that turning to food during times of crisis (as many of us did this year) can, in itself, be a healthy, adaptive response to extreme stress. “Food is a wonderful way to get through difficult things,” Resch said. “Part of intuitive eating is self-compassion, and understanding that sometimes, under difficult situations, we need food to comfort ourselves. And this pandemic has probably been one of the most difficult situations that any of us has dealt with.” 

Beyond all of this, the idea that now is the time to lose weight, get hot, glow up, etc., is understandable, but flawed, in many ways. Not only is it physically impossible to meaningfully change your appearance in a healthy way in a matter of the next month or two (these things, in fact, take years), it’s also impossible to imagine a scenario in which your friends place judgement on any changes in your appearance since the last time they saw you in… What? January 2020? 

It’s hard to imagine the sort of person who, upon seeing their friend for the first time in 14-plus months, feels compelled to place judgement on any added weight, or frankly, any bodily changes at all. The body you take back into the world, as it reopens in the coming months, is the same one that got you through the past, extremely grueling year; that, just as much as anything is else these days, is something to celebrate.

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