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How to get back on track after pandemic weight gain

woman looking stressed sitting on her couch
How to get back on track after pandemic weight gain

When COVID-19 swept around the world, most people found themselves cooped up inside without in-person access to their social networks. The result? Extra stress and some new habits—like comfort eating—to cope with all the changes.

"We have all probably eaten to some degree when we're sad, lonely or stressed," says Gundersen Behavioral Health provider Becky Deloria, PsyD. "Eating to cope isn't inherently bad, just like being a higher weight isn't in and of itself bad. It's all about a person's unique experience and what they want or need for themselves. For example, are they feeling out of control with their eating? How are they doing emotionally? Is their health being impacted? Society puts a lot of pressure on people to form certain relationships with food and how they eat to achieve the ‘ideal' body, which is often an unrealistic and unhealthy standard. These pressures can lead to body dissatisfaction, preoccupation with food, loss of control with food, eating disorders, stress, anxiety and depression."

If your experience with food during the pandemic has led to unwanted weight gain and you're looking to make a change, these tips can help.

Decrease stress

It's no secret that when you're stressed, you may be more likely to search for a snack—even if you're not hungry. Add state-mandated lockdowns, working from home and layoffs to the mix (i.e., less activity, limited socialization, boredom and easy access to food and alcohol), and it's no wonder that so many people have watched their waistline grow in the past year.

"COVID-19 has been a really big stressor on everyone," says Gundersen registered dietitian Laura Birkel. "The key is to find ways to manage stress other than by consistently relying on food."

Prioritize caring for yourself

Decreasing stress is easier said than done if you're unsure where to begin or when you're feeling particularly overwhelmed. Some great options include getting outside for a walk, hike, bike ride or simply fresh air. Nature and movement have been proven to have calming effects on the body and can make a big difference on your mindset.

Other easy-to-implement ideas that you can reach for in moments of stress include:

  • Journaling, which can be especially useful in helping identify patterns of feelings, thoughts and behaviors
  • Listening to your favorite music
  • Taking a nap
  • Soaking in a warm bath
  • Reading a book
  • Meditating
  • Doing breath work, like the 4-7-8 breathing technique
  • Watching a funny movie
  • Getting a massage
  • Singing
  • Calling a friend
  • Setting healthy boundaries for yourself, such as giving yourself permission to take a break from stressful tasks or situations

"Some stressful situations are avoidable, but a lot aren't," Dr. Deloria says. "Knowing alternative coping responses allows you to have some good tools to manage situations that aren't in your control."

Structure your days

With more people working from home and schools and daycares closing in-person interactions, familiar routines evaporated in 2020. Getting back to a set schedule can be important in managing your weight. And, yes, this means planning times to eat and practice self-care strategies, like those listed above, to reduce stress.

When it comes to creating a routine for your meals, Birkel says: "It's important to structure your day so that you're nourishing yourself in the morning and having something to eat every three to five hours to keep your energy up. This allows you to avoid sending your body into a state of extreme hunger where all your inhibitions are thrown out the window."

Have compassion

More than anything, try to treat yourself with kindness.

"We're all trying our best to figure out a way to get through this hard time," Dr. Deloria says. "No matter what you may be struggling with, I would encourage people to have some compassion for themselves and recognize that this is a difficult time."

And remember: New habits take time to form.

After more than a year of navigating life upended by a pandemic, it's important to set realistic expectations. If several months pass and you're struggling to make progress toward your health goals, you may benefit from help from Gundersen's team of experts.

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