The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to change our lives completely. We’ve been staying home. We’ve been struggling with fear, anxiety, depression, and isolation. We’ve been spending more time in front of screens and less time outside. We’ve been eating more comfort food and exercising less. It’s a perfect recipe for weight gain.
Given the circumstances, the “quarantine fifteen” may be an understandable outcome, but it’s still dangerous from a health perspective. Excess weight increases our risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, and chronic diseases including osteoarthritis, liver and kidney disease, sleep apnea, and depression. And a recent study found that, before the age of sixty, obese individuals have twice the risk of COVID-19 hospitalization as non-obese people (measured by a body mass index below 30).
Successful and sustainable weight loss requires addressing all of the underlying factors that caused weight gain in the first place. Diet and exercise are important, but so are stress, sleep, and even the way we use electronics. Medical conditions and medication side effects can also contribute to weight gain, and you’ll need your doctor’s help to know for sure. But there are things we can all do right now. Here are five ways to address the root causes of weight gain and reverse the quarantine fifteen.
#1 | Avoid sweets and starches.
Foods and beverages that are sweet—whether or not they contain natural or artificial sweeteners—and foods that are starchy, like root vegetables, grains, and anything made with flour—whether or not they contain gluten—raise levels of a hormone called insulin. When insulin levels are high, the body stores fat and it’s impossible to lose weight. When insulin levels are low, the body burns fat for energy and weight loss is possible.
The best way to keep insulin levels low is to eliminate all sweets and starches from the diet (not recommended for children, pregnant women, or athletes in training). This includes all natural and artificial sweeteners, soft drinks, cocktail mixers, breakfast cereals, pasta, bread, wraps, tortillas, pancakes, bagels, pretzels, crackers, pizza, pies, cakes, cookies, muffins, pastries, chips, breaded foods, rice, corn, popcorn, polenta, grits, oats, barley, quinoa, bulgur, potatoes, carrots, parsnips, turnips, pumpkins, yams, winter squashes, bananas, jelly, jam, dried fruit, canned fruit, fruit concentrates, and fruit juice, whether ready-made or fresh squeezed.
#2 | Be physically active every day.
Regular physical activity contributes to weight loss by improving metabolism and increasing the sensitivity of insulin receptors which can help lower high insulin levels in the blood. Exercise also improves sleep and increases levels of serotonin which can reduce food cravings.
As long we’re healthy, we can exercise at home. There are plenty of activities to choose from like callisthenic exercises—including push-ups, squats, burpees, and abdominal crunches—and the use of devices like jump ropes, resistance bands, medicine balls, kettlebells, dumbbells, and barbells. Online fitness videos, many free, are especially good options for people which want inspiration or instruction. Anyone who can safely go outside should consider walking, running, hiking, biking, and/or gardening.
#3 | Sleep seven or eight hours every night.
Lack of sleep raises levels of insulin, which increases fat storage, and ghrelin, a hormone that makes us hungry. And it causes levels of leptin, a hormone that suppresses appetite, to go down. One study showed that short sleep cycles (five to six hours) contributed as much to weight gain as long sleep cycles (nine to ten hours). People in both of these groups were more likely to experience weight gain and had an increased risk of obesity compared to individuals who slept seven or eight hours per night.
To support weight loss, adults should sleep seven to eight hours per night. Kids need more sleep: ten to twelve hours before the age of eight and eight to ten hours between the ages of eight and eighteen.
#4 | Unplug two hours before bed.
During sleep, the hormone melatonin is produced by the pineal gland in the brain. Melatonin is well known as a sleep hormone but it also plays an important role in metabolism, fat storage, and body weight. Electromagnetic radiation (EMR) from electronic devices can interfere with sleep and promote weight gain by suppressing the production of melatonin and increasing the production of stress hormones like cortisol. High levels of cortisol can increase appetite, cause cravings for sweet and starchy foods, and prompt the body to store fat. Studies show that exposure to commonly occurring low frequency electromagnetic fields can reduce total sleep time, sleep efficiency, and the amount of time spent in deep sleep.
Optimize sleep by moving electronic devices out of the bedroom. This includes televisions, wireless routers, computers, laptops, and mobile devices like tablets and cell phones. Two hours before bed, shut them down completely.
#5 | Practice relaxation.
Relaxation can promote weight loss by reducing high levels of cortisol and minimizing the effects of stress and emotional upset. It doesn’t come naturally to everyone, but relaxation can be learned. Like any skill, it requires focus, concentration, and practice. The more you do it, the easier it will be.
Pick an activity you like such as yoga, meditation, guided imagery, breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, self hypnosis, qigong, massage, or simply spending time in nature. Practice it every day and whenever the need arises. If you have difficulty sleeping, do it every night before bed and/or during nighttime awakening.
Pi-Sunyer X. The Medical Risks of Obesity. Postgraduate medicine. 2009;121(6):21-33. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2879283/
Lighter J, Phillips M, Hochman S, Sterling S, Johnson D, et al. Obesity in Patients Younger Than 60 Years Is a Risk Factor for COVID-19 Hospital Admission. Clinical Infectious Diseases. 2020:ciaa415. doi:10.1093/cid/ciaa415. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7184372/
Chaput JP, Després JP, Bouchard C and Tremblay A. The association between sleep duration and weight gain in adults: a 6-year prospective study from the Quebec Family Study. Sleep. 2008;31(4):517-523. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2279744/
Akerstedt T, Arnetz B, Ficca G, Paulsson LE, and Kallner A. A 50-Hz Electromagnetic Field Impairs Sleep. Journal of Sleep Research. 1999;8(1):77-81.