Avoiding “Quarantine 15” Weight Gain

What you eat during self-quarantine during the COVID-19 pandemic can help you cope better, stay healthy, focused and fit…or make your stress worse, increase inflammation and cause weight gain.

When quarantine began, we saw a situation not unlike what I’ve been told by a handful of elderly neighbors was experienced in times of war:  stocking up on provisions because we won’t have access to them very soon.  Including, apparently, toilet paper.

But what exactly are we stocking up on?

Given the bare shelves and frozen food sections, clearly it was in favor of packaged, processed goods, rather than heaps of fresh veggies, farm fresh eggs and mindfully sourced proteins.

At first blush, it might seem understandable to get right into fight or flight mentality; after all, if we are in danger, that’s actually one of the few times when that mindset is appropriate.

But if we take a step back, neither a fight or flight mindset nor food choices that might match it are going to help keep us healthy and resilient; in fact, they can do quite the opposite!

Research (1) shows that stress alters overall food intake, resulting in either under- or overeating, which may be influenced by stressor severity. Chronic life stress seems to be associated with a greater preference for energy- and nutrient-dense foods, namely those that are high in sugar and fat.

Add to the fact that we are getting messaging from the media to encourage us to take comfort in food, and to stock up on baking mixes from brands like Betty Crocker and we’re even further away from where we could be in order to create mindfulness around eating and moving, even amidst a pandemic.

When we’re worried or frightened, we’re more likely to seek out sugars, fats, and carbs for a quick energy boost. These comfort foods act like a natural tranquilizer that calms us down in times of peril (2).

However, what feels like an immediate short term answer grows into a bigger problem in the long run, leading to more stress eating and ultimately even more serious health problems, such as heart disease, diabetes, and obesity, depression and anxiety.

During stressful times, our cortisol curve can become skewed, inappropriately spiking blood sugar to give us energy, readying us for action.

In other words, we become ready to run from that proverbial saber tooth tiger when we have no place to go.

Glucose must be replenished after a the stress is over, so the more glucose we release in reaction to stress, the hungrier we’ll be after the stressor, increasing our craving for sweets to replace the much-needed cortisol.

The cycle leads to continued stress coupled with weight gain and even a third component:  not exercising.

The perfect recipe for disaster.

Why not flip this roller coaster ride headed for doom on its head and instead, use this at home time to create better habits for mind, body… and soul?

  • Start with stocking up on the best foods, many of which you can find at your local farmer’s markets, which are now opening up in many parts of the country that were previously too cold.  We’re spoiled in Los Angeles with having a plethora year round, but now that spring is in full bloom, most of us can make this part of our weekly regime.   Not only do we then have access to the freshest organic veggies and some fruit as well as humanely raised proteins, we can shop in the fresh air, getting our Vitamin D sources boosted and steer clear of crowded shops and touching as few things that others have touched as possible.  (Read my top ten list for more ideas).
  • Supplement with supplements… supplement being the key word.    Vitamin D, Vitamin C, Zinc and a probiotic all serve to help boost our healthy, sound diet, not to fill in the gaping holes that would exist if someone is surviving on chips, cookies and frozen pizza.   Get that 15 minutes of sun, too and if you can, put your feet in the grass a little bit, too!  Even a little bit of grounding each day is better than none.
  • Get a move on!   Get out and walk.  Even though at the moment, we’ve been told to have a mask on, there’s no reason to not go outside and move, if you’re in a suburban neighborhood with space.   If you’re in a crowded city environs, it just takes a little bit of creativity.  From cobbling together an at home gym in a spare room (or closet!) to live streaming yoga or doing a Peloton workout, there’s no reason not to move.
  • Get in the right head space.   I loved a recent talk given by Dr. Joe Dispenza in which he reminds us that sitting in fear of something outside coming to get us is the last place we want to be in.   Download an app, pray, practice TM, do breath work; whatever your thing is in order to feel that calm.
  • Lead by example.   Articles in the NY Times about how kids are on their laptops all day long, playing video games after hours of zoom class for homeschooling is eye opening and a great reminder of how important it is for us as parents to walk the walk that our kids can do with us.

We don’t know when the quarantine will end, when a vaccine will be approved and even if we will trust that vaccine.

There is much out of our control.

But rather than fall victim to fear, why not take control of what we can (what we put in our mouths, how and if we move,  and what we choose to think), and create a path to come out of the pandemic healthier than ever and more resilient than we ever could have dreamed of?

(1) Torres, SJ, & Nowson, CA. (2007). Relationship between stress, eating behavior, and obesity. Nutrition, 23: 887-894

(2) https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-right-mindset/202003/what-is-quarantine-15