Getting Back on Track After the “Quarantine 15”

September 25, 2020

“Quarantine 15” – it’s the buzzword being used to describe the trend in weight gain seen since the start of the pandemic (and the complete upheaval of everyone’s routines). Although it’s meant to be lighthearted – as a comparison to the popular “freshman 15” – many health professionals are starting to worry about its repercussions.

To understand how to get back on track, and why it’s necessary, we sat down with Dr. Marc Neff, Medical Director of the Jefferson Health Bariatric Surgery Program in New Jersey, as well as several Jefferson Health dietitians.

“It feels like we’ve all gone to college again, and we’re all fumbling through the first semester,” said Dr. Neff. “This doesn’t mean we can’t relearn our old tricks and regain control for the second semester.”

Why has the pandemic created such an impact?

Between all of the schedule changes with school and work, as well as the frightening uncertainties of our safety and the economy, a lot of stress has been stirred – emotionally, physically, and financially. It’s required a difficult adjustment, and rather than finding healthy coping mechanisms, many people have started to overeat, explains Melissa Parisi, RD.  

The imbalance in our stress hormones (such as cortisol) can actually affect our hunger hormones (such as ghrelin), explains Andrea Bookoff, MS, RD. “So, when we’re stressed, we may actually feel hungrier. It’s also embedded in us from infancy to turn to food for comfort; it’s often an involuntary response.”

For many, lack of sleep and socialization have also played a role in poor eating habits. Being stuck home, with little social cues and human contact, can significantly contribute to stress, says Dr. Neff. Two other common pandemic habits – eating unhealthy foods (especially close to bedtime) and increased alcohol consumption – can both negatively impact sleep quality, adds Melissa Wadolowski, RDN, LDN, CHC.

This can quickly turn into an endless cycle. Small setbacks are natural, but they need to be addressed.

What could this mean in the broader scheme of things?

While it’s good to acknowledge your weight gain and take accountability for it, it’s bad to turn it into a joke, says Wadolowski. Memes and buzzwords can negate the seriousness of the situation – which is that many people are neglecting their health and opening the doors to illness. This is especially worrisome for people already in poor health.

Studies show there are 65 different medical conditions and 15 different cancers all linked to obesity, shares Dr. Neff. Within the past couple of years, we’ve surpassed 40 percent obesity as a nation. As this pandemic goes on, this percentage could easily increase.

How can we change?

The first step is planning ahead, says Parisi. Even though your schedule is no longer the same, creating a food plan can add some much-needed structure and consistency back to your day, adds Bookoff.

Plan Ahead: This can involve meal planning for the whole week, depending on what you find at your grocery store, or it can be as simple as packing a lunch box to bring to your home office, says Dr. Neff.

When we wait until the last minute to eat – when we’re at our hungriest – we’re more likely to grab something junky, says Wadolowski. It’s also easier to disregard portion size when this happens.

Picking healthy, affordable options is possible, but you have to set aside the time to do it, adds Parisi. The more you plan ahead, the less stress you should experience.

Set Achievable Goals:

Part of your plan should include a few easy, specific goals related to food and exercise. It may sound silly, but as you cross them off it can significantly boost your self-confidence and momentum, says Wadolowski.

Get Creative:

Research some recipes and replace some of your guilty pleasures with healthier alternatives, such as a homemade trail mix or a frozen yogurt, continues Parisi. You can even turn this into a family project or educational opportunity for your kids.

“With that being said, know that having treats is still okay,” said Wadolowski. “You just want to do so in moderation.”

Hold Yourself Accountable:

“With my bariatric patients, I’ve encouraged them to return to the habits that worked best for them at the beginning,” said Dr. Neff. “Often, this involves using a fitness tracker or food log. This kind of tool can be beneficial for anyone. It keeps you honest when you’re not in front of a healthcare professional.”

You could also find an “accountability partner,” such as a friend or family member who wants to start eating healthier with you and will provide good support, adds Bookoff.

Factor in Some You Time:

Self-care is a must. It looks different for everyone; maybe it’s reading a book, listening to music, or going for a walk. Setting aside time for yourself each day is a key part of survival, explains Dr. Neff.

Don’t Approach it Alone:

“This virus is testing people’s resiliency, their creativity, and their discipline,” continued Dr. Neff.

If you’re struggling to get back on track, don’t be afraid to reach out for help, whether it’s with a mental health professional or a dietitian for nutritional counseling. No matter the hardship, you don’t have to go through it alone.

For more information on Nutrition services offered at Jefferson Health – New Jersey, click HERE.