Why I’ve Stopped Obsessing Over ‘Quarantine 15’ and You Should Too
Health experts weigh in on "quarantine 15" and how obsessing over your weight can make you depressed, stressed, and even put on more pounds.
Courtesy Charlotte Hilton Andersen
Pre-coronavirus pandemic, I was on a roll with my health. I was working out regularly and had finally managed to lose eight of the last ten pounds I’d gained from my last baby. (The “baby” who is now ten. Ahem.) Like so many people can attest, the last ten pounds are the hardest to budge. I was feeling extra proud of myself for finally sticking with my healthy changes and turning them into habits. Then quarantine happened.
I managed to do pretty well for the first month, working out at home and maintaining my weight loss. I think it was a combination of fear-fueled manic energy and a misguided hope that all of this would be over in just a few weeks. I chuckled at all the “quarantine 15” memes and was grateful it wasn’t an issue for me.
However, when we passed the 30-day mark in quarantine with no end in sight, my resolve took a serious nosedive. I was working from home and homeschooling four antsy, scared kids. Just getting out of bed every day and doing all the things I needed to do was all I could manage. I wasn’t laughing at the memes anymore.
We’re now about two-and-a-half months into quarantine and I’m struggling to adjust to my “new normal.” (Wow, do I hate that phrase! There is nothing normal about any of this!) I have gained back all eight pounds I lost, plus an extra few—I’ve become the meme. (By the way, quarantine FOMO is real, but you can stop it.)
The link between quarantine and weight gain
Obviously this doesn’t make me feel awesome about myself but what can I do?
“You start by understanding that you’re not alone; quarantine is a perfect storm for weight issues and anxiety about weight,” says Jennifer Wolkin, PhD, a licensed clinical neuropsychologist and assistant professor of psychology at New York University. “It all has to do with the scarcity mindset, when you feel like food isn’t going to be available, you may feel compelled to over- or under-eat as a way to deal with that fear,” Wolkin explains. In addition, stress is a known trigger for weight gain, and the pandemic has certainly brought about an epidemic of stress along with the coronavirus.
One factor is that exercise—a great way to manage weight and stress—has become a lot harder to do during quarantine, she says. This is certainly true for me. I still try to exercise daily but my workouts have become much shorter and half-hearted.
I’d loved my group fitness classes and without the support of my instructors and my gym friends, it feels tough to find the motivation to work out and when I do, it is way less fun. Virtual classes are an option but exercising alone in my bedroom sometimes made me more sad, remembering what I’m missing. Many days my exercise is walking loops around my neighborhood with my kids—better than nothing but not enough to maintain my fitness level.
The challenge of sticking to healthy eating habits
The real issue though is eating habits, says Alana Kessler, a registered dietitian nutritionist in New York City and founder of Be Well. “Quarantine is a big transition for most people and the uncertainty and lack of normal schedule can make it harder to stick to your healthy eating goals,” she says. Add to that extra stressors like having to care for others, homeschool children, and adjust to working from home, and it’s easy to see why ramen is more appealing than salmon and veggies, she says.
Food, which has always been comforting to me, has become my go-to reward, relief, and escape. Whenever I feel overwhelmed with my kids, I hide in my closet and eat candy. Homemade desserts are a way to celebrate milestones, like birthdays and graduations, since other activities are no longer options. And it doesn’t help that like so many others I’ve taken up baking fresh bread during quarantine… and eating it. A lot of it.
“Stress eating isn’t great but it’s understandable,” Dr. Wolkin says. “It’s a natural response and you shouldn’t shame yourself or others for using food for comfort.”
The obsession with quarantine weight gain
I’ll admit, I was starting to become obsessed with my own weight gain and reversing the trend. This is understandable; even before the pandemic, weight loss was already a national sport of sorts and quarantine has only increased this focus and feeling of competition, Wolkin says. Images and articles about weight loss or gain are everywhere online, making it hard to avoid them. Impressive weight loss transformations are widely shared. There’s even a popular online quarantine 15 calculator that will predict how much weight you’ll gain during the lockdown.
“All of this can make you feel like you’re ‘losing’ or ‘failing’,” she says. “We’re seeing a big increase in body toxicity and shaming which can trigger this type of obsession and other negative feelings.”
Obsessing over weight also gives people a sense of control, which can be important as you’ve lost control over so many other aspects of normal life, Kessler says. You may also be using it as a way to avoid worrying about scarier things, like getting Covid-19 or having a loved one die. Weight talk is sometimes used as a way to bond with friends or loved ones, as you commiserate over too-tight pants. (This isn’t the only unhealthy habit people are turning to in quarantine.)
Why worrying about “quarantine 15” isn’t productive
However, feeling angry and upset at myself over gaining weight and becoming preoccupied with weight loss isn’t productive and can lead to harmful illnesses, including depression and eating disorders, Kessler says. Mental health is already declining in quarantine and adding this type of pressure to yourself only contributes to more misery and suffering, she says. (Mental illness during quarantine is a serious issue; here’s how one man is handling his bipolar disorder and depression during the pandemic.)
It also may affect you physically. “Constantly worrying about your weight isn’t healthy,” Wolkin says. “Anxiety increases the levels of stress hormones in your body, which can lead to weight gain and a decreased immune system—definitely not what you need right now.”
This whole situation is scary and different and temporary; you won’t always be in this position and your body won’t always feel this way, Wolkin says. Do you really want to waste time that you could be using to learn to paint or play with your kids or take an afternoon nap on worrying about your waistline? (Instead, focus on these things we’re all looking forward to after social distancing.)
Putting weight in perspective
Despite what you may think, the “quarantine 15” may not be that big of a problem. In the U.S., only 37 percent of people have gained more than a pound, with the average weight gain being only .21 pounds, according to a recent survey of over two million people by Withings, a French consumer electronics company with offices around the world, including the U.S.
It’s likely due to a combination of factors, according to the survey. In the findings, the average step count only decreased slightly in quarantine (and even increased in some states) meaning that people are finding ways to exercise while staying at home.
People may also have more time to exercise as they are no longer commuting or involved in outside activities. In addition, more people are cooking at home and home-cooked meals—even those with fresh bread—are typically healthier and lower in calories than restaurant food, they noted. Lastly, they found people are getting more and higher quality sleep, which is also associated with maintaining a healthy weight.
Clearly this isn’t the case for me, but these numbers can reassure you and help put your weight in perspective.
How to stop your quarantine weight obsession
Comparison is at the root of weight obsessions so you need to take steps to avoid comparing your body to others or even to your past self, Wolkin says. “Stop looking at social media,” she advises. “Not only can it trigger obsessive thoughts and body dysmorphia but many of those images aren’t real at all! So many people lie and manipulate their images online.”
Instead, focus on what you need to feel happy and healthy in your body. “Treat yourself in a loving, compassionate way by eating mindfully,” Wolkin says. “Eat at the table, with real dishes, at regular times. Feed yourself good food that you enjoy and will nourish you. You deserve that.”
Exercise is also important for your physical and mental health. “Be gentle with yourself but hold yourself accountable,” Wolkin says. “Find a way to move every day, preferably outdoors. Do what you can, it doesn’t have to be perfect.” [Here’s how this avid runner’s body changed during the pandemic as she learned to listen to it more.]
Avoid getting focused on certain foods or diets, Kessler says. “Don’t ban yourself from having a treat sometimes, that plays into that scarcity mindset and may lead you to binge later,” she explains. “Plan out your treats and really enjoy eating them.”
Accept mistakes as part of the learning process. Remember that your weight doesn’t say anything about you as a person, Dr. Wolkin says. “This pandemic isn’t your fault, none of us could see it coming, and you’re doing the absolute best you can to deal with it,” she says.
“It’s perfectly fine to say to yourself ‘I don’t want to gain weight, it’s important to me to maintain my body image and fit into my clothes’,” Kessler says. “But don’t ruminate on your weight or beat yourself up over it. Just get back on track with your health goals.”