Although there are so many more important things going on in the world right now, hysteria over pandemic weight gain is at an all-time high. Weight loss messages are all around us. The CDC is telling people to lose weight. Weight loss companies (ahem, Noom) are tripling-down on their investment in advertising. Stories about how and why to lose weight are EVERYWHERE.
Despite all this, you really, really shouldn’t panic about pandemic weight gain. Not everyone has gained weight during the pandemic. But if you have, it’s a totally natural response to what’s been going on. Here’s why you don’t need to lose weight post-pandemic, why any weight loss attempt will probably backfire, and what you can do instead.
First, it’s OK if you’re panicking about pandemic weight gain.
You can be completely aware of diet culture, angry about unrealistic body standards, and on board with intuitive eating and body acceptance. AND, you can still struggle with the fact that your body is bigger now than it was pre-pandemic. There’s no shame in that. In fact, it has nothing to do with you.
Weight loss messages are everywhere. And we live in a society that’s very anti-fat. Fat bodies are discriminated against and less privileged than thin bodies. Your fear of weight gain is a natural response to that.
But here’s the thing: A weight loss attempt isn’t the answer.
First and foremost, diets don’t work. Even diets that lead to short-term weight loss practically NEVER lead to long-term weight loss. Usually, they just lead to food and body obsession. A 2011 review found that virtually no dieters maintain their weight loss for more than 2-5 years. A 2013 review found that between one-third and two-thirds of dieters regain more weight than they lost. A 2020 analysis of 121 studies found that dieters couldn’t keep weight off for a year or more. All those diet companies that promise permanent, easy weight loss? They’re lying.
On the other hand, evidence is clear that body acceptance and intuitive eating have legitimate health benefits. That is, when you make peace with food and your body (when you stop trying to lose weight), you actually get healthier. A 2013 study found that intuitive eating boosts body appreciation, self-esteem, and body awareness. And, it lowers the risk of eating disorders and body shame. A 2017 survey study found that intuitive eaters generally eat healthier diets than people who restrict their food.
Diets keep you stuck in the binge-restrict cycle.
Another huge risk of attempting weight loss is that you’ll likely get stuck in the binge-restrict cycle. Essentially, you’ll start by restricting in an attempt to lose weight. For a while, it’ll feel good, even empowering. But soon, you’ll start to feel intense cravings for foods you’re restricting, or just food in general. (This is where the myth of food addiction or sugar addiction comes from!) Eventually, you’ll give into these cravings. You might binge and feel out of control. This will lead to feelings of shame, which is exactly what started the cycle in the first place. You’ll go back to restricting as a way to lessen the shame, and the whole cycle will start over again.
The first step in making peace with pandemic weight gain is to let go of the shame you have around it.
There are so, so many reasons why you might have gained weight during the pandemic. Increased stress often leads to weight gain, and most of us were pretty stressed this past year (plus). Moving your body less often might lead to weight gain. If your regular fitness spaces (gyms, yoga studios, parks, sports leagues) were closed for a significant amount of time, you probably exercised less. Plus, staying at home most of the time meant that most of us engaged in less everyday movement (commuting, walking around the office, even socializing). There’s no shame in the fact that you were doing what was necessary to keep yourself safe.
It’s also possible that you gained weight during the pandemic because you were over-exercising or restricting food beforehand. If you relied on long, daily bouts of exercise to maintain a certain weight, it probably wasn’t a realistic or sustainable weight for you. If you were restrictive about food before, you probably felt out of control when you were constantly at home, with access to everything in your kitchen. (Again, restriction leads to overeating and bingeing.)
For anyone who can identify with these things, pandemic weight gain may have actually helped you along in the journey to food and peace.
You may have inadvertently started making peace with food, just because you were around it more often. And you may have healed your relationship with exercise while you were unable to go to the gym every day. These are good things!
No matter why you might have gained weight during the pandemic, it’s important to realize that there’s no reason to feel shame. You survived a global crisis. You probably worked hard to keep other things in your life (work, kids, relationships, mental health) afloat. Gaining weight isn’t wrong, it’s just a natural part of life.
Realize that being at a higher weight doesn’t mean that you’re less healthy.
To be clear, it’s possible that you are less healthy now than you were before the pandemic. Increased stress, less movement, higher alcohol consumption, and fewer doctor’s visits can all have a negative impact on your health. And if you did contract COVID, you might still be dealing with complications.
And yes, sometimes weight gain can be indicative of a serious health condition. If you gained a significant amount of weight very suddenly and don’t think you changed much about your behaviors, see a doctor to figure out if there’s an underlying cause.
But weight gain in and of itself doesn’t make you less healthy. If you were extremely restrictive about your food intake and strict about your exercise routine before? Your body may have benefited from any weight you put on when you stopped punishing yourself with diet and exercise. Even if you had an OK relationship with food and exercise before, there’s no reason to demonize weight gain.
The relationship between weight and health is so much more complex than our culture makes it out to be.
Body mass index (BMI) is an extremely poor indicator of health. It’s based on data from primarily white men in the 1800s, and was never meant to be used to measure individual health. The cutoffs for varios BMI categories — “underweight,” “normal,” “overweight,” and “obese” — are relatively arbitrary. (The threshold for the “overweight” category actually got significantly lowered in 1998, without much scientific reasoning. So, millions of people went from being “normal” weight to “overweight,” literally overnight.) It’s absolutely possible to be healthy at a higher weight, just as it’s possible to be unhealthy at a lower weight. What’s more, some evidence shows that people at higher weights are less likely to die than people at lower weights.
Your body is not the problem. Diet culture is.
I wish it were as easy as simply telling yourself that weight gain is no big deal. But I understand that it’s not. I have moments of panicking about my ever-changing body, too! We all do.
The best way to handle this is to recognize that diet culture is the problem, not your body. Accept that your body and weight will change over time. Work towards a healthier relationship with food. Stop weighing yourself. (Seriously, throw away your scale!) Find ways of moving your body that actually feel good — maybe that means going to the gym, maybe it means walking, yoga, or playing a sport. Get in tune with how various things (food, movement, sleep, stressors) make your body feel, not how they make your body look.
Body acceptance isn’t easy, but it’s possible. If you want more actionable advice on how to work towards body acceptance or body neutrality, check out this article.
The bottom line is that if you’ve gained weight during the pandemic and feel uncomfortable, you shouldn’t waste your time, energy, and money on another diet. You’re so much better off channeling your energy into body acceptance and food freedom. These things are sustainable, and life-changing. Diets and weight loss are not.