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The Ways the Pandemic Has Influenced Our Eating Habits

More cooking, more uncertainty, less exercise and less sleep have taken their toll

By Randi Mazzella

Last week, my husband and I decided since outdoor dining resumed in our state, we would go out to dinner. For the first time in several months, I decided to get dressed up. I noticed that all my “real” pants felt snug at the waist.

banana bread
Making banana bread was popular early in quarantine  |  Credit: Adobe

The pandemic and staying at home had changed my eating habits immensely. Over the past few months, dinner had become the focal point of our family's day. I was cooking more elaborate meals. Indulging in more "happy hours" and baking banana bread on a weekly basis. I also found myself snacking more frequently throughout the day (especially after watching the news) and craving heartier fare like pasta and sandwiches, rather than my usual salads.

My experience is not uncommon. A recent survey by OnePoll on behalf of Nutrisystem found that 76% of respondents shared they've gained up to 16 pounds during their time in self-isolation (dubbed #Quarantine15).

Why the Weight Gain?

Health, wellness and weight loss expert Liz Josefsberg explains, “COVID-19 caused our entire lives to change in a week.”  Schools closed and parents were working from home. We were home cooking more meals and mindlessly snacking due to stress, boredom and anxiety.

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Josefsberg says, “Every healthy habit we had disappeared and with zero preparation. We developed new habits such as planning elaborate dinners, baking and drinking more alcohol to cope with the situation. Most of us were also moving substantially less, sitting at our home computer instead of walking to the train or around the office or running around with the kids.”

Author Beverly Willett, of Savannah, Ga., found herself turning to food for comfort for the first time in her life.

"I have tremendous willpower for lots of things, but suddenly, my willpower over eating seemed to disappear overnight."

Willett says, “I live alone, and my social life abruptly ended. Church services went online. The gym shut down. Food was one of the few options available, so that's where I turned. I was forced to deny myself everything else.”

Before the pandemic, Willett had never been an ice cream fanatic, but during the months at home, she started eating ice cream right from the pint container while watching television on the couch. She says, “I have tremendous willpower for lots of things, but suddenly my willpower over eating seemed to disappear overnight.”

Beyond eating more and moving less, changes in sleep patterns can also contribute to weight gain. Many people have found themselves with trouble sleeping due to anxiety, or sleeping more due to boredom. Willett used to be a morning person. But now the late-night TV binging has caused her to sleep schedule to be off and she no longer wakes up early to take a walk.

Christina Pierpaoli Parker, a sleep, aging and health researcher and a resident of clinical psychology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, says, “Research strongly links sleep with metabolic health, appetite and diet. When we are sleep deprived, our hormones are off, causing us to be hungrier. We are also awake more, with more time to eat, but we are tired and tend to exercise less.”

Why the Concern?

It’s easy to say: Who cares about gaining a few pounds when the world is in chaos? Don’t people have bigger concerns than to feel fat-shamed?

Josefsberg points out, “It’s a slippery slope because five pounds can lead to ten and this can lead to all types of issues. The way we take care of our bodies, what we eat and how much we move affects how we feel.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), “People who have obesity, compared to those with a normal or healthy weight, are at increased risk for many serious diseases and health conditions, including high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes.” Obesity also puts you at increased risk of severe illness from the coronavirus, the CDC says.

Even a small weight gain or change in eating habits can lower your quality of life.

Pierpaoli Parker explains, "Weight gain causes joint loading and systemic inflammation, which can make movement painful. If it hurts to move, you will move less. Being sedentary can lead to less social engagement, which will impact sleep and energy level (because of inactivity.)  All of this makes a person tired, bored and lonely — which can cause them to eat more and gain more weight."

Willett, who has already had seven knee surgeries, worries that the extra pounds she has put on during the pandemic are adding stress to her joints. She says, “There's no way with my current lifestyle or metabolism I can manage the weight I was in my forties. Weight is not about reaching a certain goal weight, a number, but rather how I feel. The weight is literally wearing me down and the physical and mental go hand-in-hand.”

4 Ways to Create New Healthy Habits

For most of the country, it doesn't look like things will be going back to "normal" in the foreseeable future. So, if you have gotten into some bad habits over the past few months and want to make some lifestyle changes, here are four tips on how to get started:

1. Examine your relationship with food. “Ask yourself: 'What am I really feeding? Physical hunger or emotional hunger?'" says Pierpaoli Parker. If the latter, seek out other, non-food-based sources for what you need, such as reaching out to a friend or engaging in other valued, meaningful activities that give you the psychological and emotional nourishment you need.


Think about rewriting the narrative of your health story. For example, if you say to yourself, “I can’t eat cookies, because I am on a diet,” your story is one of deprivation. But if you say, “I’m excited to go to the farmers market” and “I'm lucky to have access to fresh berries,” eating nutritiously becomes a reward rather than a punishment.

Josefsberg says the key to maintaining a healthy weight is to make small, sustainable lifestyle changes. She explains, "Going on a diet or any restrictive eating program is a recipe for guilt, shame and failure. Instead, you want to restore balance in your life by making systematic, sustainable changes.”

For example, if you have been drinking alcohol several times a week, don't say, "I am never drinking again." Instead, consider cutting down a little at a time, so you are back to your pre-pandemic consumption of, say, enjoying a glass of wine once or twice a week.

If you tend to do a lot of emotional eating, consider eliminating or limiting the number of tempting options in your home. For example, if you find you can’t resist Oreos, don’t keep a box in your house. Pierpaoli Parker says, “Curbing mindless eating has more to do with making environmental modifications than engaging your ‘willpower" — a largely debunked myth in psychological science.”

2. Think about adding more movement. As for fitness, again, re-write the narrative. Pierpaoli Parker says, “The word ‘exercise,' at least for me, feels dirty and laborious, like I am punishing myself. I prefer the word ‘movement’ to ‘exercise’ because this seems like a much more palatable, less discouraging way of discussing it. And when you change the story you tell yourself, you can change how you feel and what you do about doing it.”

Pierpaoli Parker suggests setting what are called SMART goals for movement: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely.

Pick a specific movement such as bike riding or going on a walk after dinner. Make a concrete appointment with yourself to do this activity that you enjoy four or five days a week. Put it in your calendar so that you hold yourself accountable.

"The way we take care of our bodies, what we eat and how much we move affects how we feel."

Pierpaoli Parker says, “Knowing exactly what, how, and when to do something increases the likelihood of actually doing it. It will also help to create healthy habits. Routines free us of cognitive resources and, over time, promote behavioral automaticity. With enough consistency, moving will start to feel like the norm."

3. Examine your sleep habits. Pierpaoli Parker explains, “We behave more impulsively with insufficient sleep. That means when the integrity of this connection gets compromised after a poor night's sleep, obesogenic cues (e.g., that chocolate bar taunting you at the grocery checkout line) may feel more salient and difficult to resist."

Also, fatigue messes with motivation, hijacking the ability to engage in health behaviors such as meal preparation or exercise. Although it can be hard to sleep in times of stress, trying following these tips from the CDC on how to get more zzzz’s.

4. Be kind to yourself. For Willett, the year has been a chaotic one. A few weeks before launching her first book tour, she was the victim of a hit-and-run car accident that she was lucky to have survived. As Willett was rehabilitating from her injuries, the pandemic hit.

She says, “Everything that has happened to me over the past year has made me realize that the main thing I have to do is forgive myself for not being perfect — and not handle everything all at once. So no regrets. I've enjoyed those ice cream and mashed potato and chocolate chip cookie binges. Maybe I'd have said to myself, ‘Go for it,' but just not every day.”

Josefsberg agrees with this clean slate approach. Being upset or angry with yourself about gaining weight is counterproductive. "You didn't do anything wrong. There was no road map," she says. "These past few months, we were all in survival mode, doing whatever we could to feel better and relieve our stress.”

Instead, look forward and toward making changes that will help you to feel better in the future.

Randi Mazzella
Randi Mazzella is a freelance writer specializing in a wide range of topics from parenting to pop culture to life after 50. She is a mother of three grown children and lives in New Jersey with her husband.  Read more of her work on Read More
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