Dealing with Post-Covid Weight Gain: Think Brain, Body and Behavior

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October 21, 2021

The last 18+ months have been emotionally and physically draining. We have been pushed to our limits in almost every regard. Responding to an unpredictable threat like the COVID-19 pandemic evokes the stress response – which has many serious physical and mental health consequences. The American Psychological Association published a survey way back in March of 2021, only a year into the pandemic, which highlighted a brow-raising statistic: over 40% of Americans reported gaining weight – an average of nearly 30 pounds…and then came Delta. 

As the tide slowly starts to change, and we are slowly moving back out into offices, restaurants, and other pre-pandemic life habits, I am hearing many patients express frustration, regret, and urgency about their weight. As a health psychologist specializing in eating and weight issues, weight is a topic I discussed with my patients every day long before COVID-19. But as an article in The Lancet recently highlighted, I’ve seen a huge uptick in people feeling anxious and depressed and wanting help dealing with new and recurring weight struggles that have worsened during COVID. Rising triglycerides and A1C levels, clothes that no longer fit, loneliness, and chronic exhaustion are just a few of the co-occurring complaints.  

In response to these concerns, I created a framework to help my patients think about how to deal with post-COVID weight gain from a compassionate, science-informed perspective. I hope it will help you, too.

In order to navigate the post-COVID weight gain, you may be tempted to go all-in with a popular diet, a fast, or a program that promises quick results. Maybe you have a rescheduled wedding to attend, a conference at which you will finally speak, or you just want to put on real jeans for the first time in months. Don’t be fooled by the trendy fads for weight loss. They generally do more harm than good, leading to a loss of self-confidence and motivation, not weight. 

Instead, focus on your three B’s: your Brain, your Body, and your Behavior. All have been impacted by the pandemic, and all will need some attention during the coming months and years. 

Your brain has been flooded with stress hormones for 18+ months, greatly increasing your chances of experiencing anxiety and depression. You may have noticed more difficulty sleeping, more tension in your neck, back, shoulders or jaw. You might be more irritable. The first step to addressing your weight is to work on managing your stress, your anxiety, and your mood. Things that can help include work with a therapist, meditation, deep breathing, and building a daily gratitude practice into your routine. A little goes a long way when it comes to reducing stress hormones so just start somewhere and trust that taking care of your brain is worth it. To be frank, your body can’t effectively lose weight when your brain is bathing in the stress hormone cortisol, so start above the neck (i.e., your brain) to get the changes you want below it (i.e., your body).  

Next up, your body. It may be larger or different in other ways than before COVID; it also may be stiff, achy, or in substantial pain from sitting in front of screens, from all the stress we just discussed, and from moving less. Perhaps you lost mobility and fluidity during the pandemic. Don’t forget, we grew nearly two years older, too. Rather than punish your body for gaining weight and aging, treat it with kindness and take care of it to begin the journey towards healing. 

Your body has been in survival mode…quite literally. Just as you might have nursed a bird with a broken wing back to health when you were a kid, practice small acts of body care for yourself. Be gentle. Helpful ideas include stretches, plenty of water, and getting fresh air and bright sun (or at least some outdoor time) every single day. If you have gotten out of the routine of taking your medications or your multivitamin, you might add it back into your day on a schedule that helps you feel that tiny sense of accomplishment. And finally, if your diet has shifted more towards Uber eats and less towards home cooking, perhaps you dust off an old cookbook and whip up a tried-and-true favorite or just chop up a crisp apple at snack time. Simply by focusing on adding more whole, unprocessed foods to your intake (rather than focusing on taking away the less healthy options) you will feel more empowered and in charge of your eating. And bonus, you will give your body some extra nourishment, too! 

Finally, your behavior: Your behavior has almost definitely changed since the pre-COVID times. Of course it has! Whether you have found yourself drinking more alcohol, eating more at night, sleeping at odd times, or doom- or envy-scrolling more than ever, you are going to have to pay attention to these new habits and make some changes to support the physical and mental health you deserve. Proactively create some new routines that will support your physical and mental health. If you haven’t already, try mapping out a daily routine that includes daily self-care, no matter what that looks like for you. Maybe you like to take walks, baths, read books, hug your pet or push yourself a bit to reach out to friends you may not have seen in a while. Adding some structure and predictability to uncertain times can help you feel more in control. There is no perfect routine out there, so do what works for you. And if you don’t know what works, that’s okay! Keep experimenting until you find self-care activities that feel good to you. 

The good news is, you don’t have to go back to things the way they were if you don’t want to. Many of my patients have commented on how they do not wish to return to life as it was pre-pandemic: the rushing to and fro, the long commutes, and the endless to-do lists piling up. Adapting to this new normal is an opportunity to make choices about how you spend your time. Listen to what you need, and choose wisely.  

Editor’s note: Thanks to Dr. Pashby. See more at her website: www.dchealthpsychology.com

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