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Panicked by Pandemic Pounds?

A recent piece in the Portland Press Herald talked about one man’s dismay at gaining seven “pandemic pounds.” He was able to lose some of the weight, but the last three pounds clung on stubbornly.

This threw him into a panic. In the piece, he wrote: “I conceived of drastic interventions. How much did an arm weigh?”

Now, I have a feeling the comments about losing a limb were a bit tongue in cheek. But I also know that some people do fantasize about cutting away parts of their body that they consider offensive because they’re too fatty.

All this got me thinking about the talk I’ve heard about pandemic weight gain and what might be a good way to address it.

Changes during the pandemic

Recent studies have found that many people have changed weight during the pandemic, with some losing weight, but with more people (42% in the study) gaining an average of 29 pounds. Some even refer to this as the “COVID 15,” similar to the “Freshman 15” for college.

I can understand how gaining that much weight, or even just some of it, in a year could be alarming and make someone panic.

But at the same time, the weight changes aren’t too surprising when I think about people’s relationship to food and what else changed this past year.

After all, many people use food to address things that have nothing to do with hunger, and the pandemic exacerbated lots of those reasons:

  • Stress: this amped up for all of us, although some more than others

  • Boredom: for many, it can be rather boring to stay in the same four walls almost all the time

  • Anxiety: for those who eat when they’re anxious, this past year has had lots of triggers

  • Joy and celebration: we often celebrate with food, but this last year when we couldn’t see friends or family in person, food took on an added role since it was often the only way to celebrate

You can probably add to the list, but you get the idea. Almost all the emotional reasons people have for eating have been heightened during the pandemic.

On top of that, trying to stay physically active became more challenging. Gyms closed, or people weren’t comfortable going to them, and even outdoor activities were more difficult once you factored in masks.

Plus, for people like me who enjoy going outside to be alone with nature, it often felt like trails were inundated, which sometimes made it less relaxing.

How mindful eating can help

Hopefully, none of you are contemplating removing a limb to address any weight gain, but you might be thinking of a diet.

A better approach, though, is working on changing the triggers that encouraged you to eat more in the first place. In other words, starting to eat more mindfully.

If you start paying attention, you’ll likely notice when you feel like eating even if you’re not hungry. The ones I mentioned above are common triggers, but you might also eat when you’re lonely, depressed, sad, or simply out of habit.

Once you can identify those triggers, you can find other ways to address them.

For example, if you often eat while watching TV, you may find that you automatically reach for food when you sit on the couch. Sitting somewhere else can help break that pattern. You could also put a note on your TV or remote control, reminding yourself to see if you’re hungry before eating while watching TV.

Or if you notice that you eat when you’re lonely, see if you can find another way to address that. Maybe you can set up a call or video chat with a friend or family member. Maybe you could send an email or text message to someone you haven’t talked to for a while. Or maybe you can just express your feelings through writing or music or some other outlet.

And the best part about this approach, as opposed to a diet, is that once you find other ways to address those triggers, they no longer have any power over you. You won’t be tempted as often to overeat due for those reasons, and you’ll feel much more at peace.

Don’t panic

I know that it can be hard not to panic when you notice weight changes, but it’s a good time to remember the great piece of advice that Douglas Adams shared in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Don’t panic!

Panicking won’t help you make good decisions, so instead, take some deep breaths, and see if you can start noticing some patterns in your eating. If you can, and if you can find better ways to address them than eating, you’ll not only feel better now but you’ll be much better prepared for whatever comes next.


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