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How Not to Gain Weight When the Fridge Is Always Nearby

Experts share tips for avoiding overreating when you're home all the time

spinner image man wearing pjs looks in the fridge for something to eat
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Almost as soon as stay-at-home orders were issued, jokes about the “Quarantine 15” went, well, viral. It seems that even when we're experiencing disaster on a global scale, the one in our bathroom is equally likely to grab our attention.

Given that so many of us have been cut off from our usual routines, food sources and social outlets, the fear of gaining weight during this time is completely warranted. Realizing those fears, however, is far from inevitable.

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Food and feelings

If memes were around during the last great pandemic — the Spanish flu in 1918 — you probably wouldn't find any about still fitting into your “day pants” (that's slang for pajama bottoms you wear when you're not actually sleeping). That's because obesity really didn't become a major public health issue until after World War II, according to Marion Nestle, author of Food Politics. That it now is a major one, and that early evidence indicates obesity may increase the risk of developing severe COVID-19, understandably heightens fears about packing on extra pounds.

But while few of us want to gain weight, some of us do feel awfully tempted to eat a donut around the time we'd previously have been headed to the gym or running to our first meeting of the day. “There is good literature on the extent to which food is a comfort,” says Carole Counihan, a cultural anthropologist and emerita professor at Millersville University in Pennsylvania. “And of course we know it helps produce endorphins and leads to a soothing, calming effect.” There's also historical precedent to gaining weight during times of great social or emotional upheaval. The Germans have a word for it: kummerspeck, literally “grief bacon.”

Quality vs. quantity

The urge to self-medicate with chips and dip only increases when you're never far from the kitchen. “Having constant access to food at an arm's length can be very challenging,” says Bonnie Taub-Dix, creator of and author of Read It Before You Eat It. “There's a tendency to be bored or annoyed or anxious, and walk into the kitchen to forage for food.”

If you were panic-buying nonperishables like the rest of us, the food you have constant access to is likely the kind that will leave you craving more: highly processed, sugary or salty (or both), and void of nutrients such as protein and fiber. Alcohol consumption is, understandably, up, and every glass of wine, beer or cocktail packs a double punch by adding empty calories to your diet and lowering your inhibitions about having a second brownie.

Even if you want to make nutritious choices, regular access to fresh produce is now more challenging, and you may be frustrated that you don't have all the ingredients you need to make your usual healthy go-tos. If you're quarantining with others, you may have to adjust your menu to suit everyone's tastes or dietary restrictions. And how many loaves of banana bread or batches of cookies have you personally baked to pass time or entertain the kids?

Honing healthy habits

Reassuringly, though, experts say this is all completely normal, given the extremely abnormal circumstances in which we find ourselves. “This is a really unique time,” says Taub-Dix. “And one of the most important things to remember is not to beat yourself up over indulging in foods you wouldn't typically choose or eating more than you usually do.”

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It helps to keep your expectations in check. Self-isolation has given us all a lot more time to scroll through social media feeds and envy anyone who has been able to use this time for self-improvement, but everyone's circumstances are different. With the added pressures you may be facing, now might not be the right time to finally lose those pesky 10 extra pounds. That doesn't mean you'll never do it; just that, for now, you may want to focus on a more achievable “maintain, don't gain” kind of goal.

Establishing a routine can help. “Previously, a lot of us ate by the clock,” says Taub-Dix. If you had a schedule that was working for you, try to establish one again, she suggests. Routines can be comforting, and they help us stick to healthy habits; eating at specific times, for instance, will help prevent mindlessly snacking all day long.

Moving should also be one of those habits. While the cliché that you can't outexercise a bad diet is true, staying active has other benefits. “Research shows that regular physical activity has a big impact on your mood and things like mental resiliency,” says K. Aleisha Fetters, fitness trainer and author of Fitness Hacks for Over 50: 300 Easy Ways to Incorporate Exercise Into Your Life. For that reason, she says, “It's helpful to think of avoiding weight gain as a by-product of doing something to make your body feel good, not a goal in itself.”

Aim to spend 30 minutes a day on what Fetters calls “intentional movement” — that includes walking, cleaning, gardening and dancing. And those 30 minutes don't have to be consecutive — recent research found that moving throughout the day (accumulated exercise) has an equally favorable or, in some cases, better impact on health than a single intense workout (continuous exercise). Fetters, who lives in a 950-square-foot Chicago apartment, has found herself breaking up her workout out of necessity — some kettlebell work here, 10 minutes of yoga there. It adds up.

Head gains

Ultimately, one of the biggest keys to managing your weight during a pandemic is the same as managing your weight anytime: your mindset. “It's almost always a self-fulfilling prophecy,” says Bonnie Miller, an associate professor of American studies at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, who is researching pandemic-influenced food habits in her local community. “You can think, ‘Because of these circumstances, I have no choice but to eat poorly,’ or you can use this time to really think about what you're eating."

When the stay-at-home orders were issued, Miller had been in the middle of her own weight-loss journey. “I had lost about 15 pounds and was used to going to the gym every single day,” she says. Then, suddenly, her gym closed, her husband stocked the house with tons of processed food, and a lot of the things that had become staples in her diet were unavailable. “I was really nervous at first,” she says. “I was kind of forced to have more unhealthy food in my diet. But I said, ‘Okay, this is what I have to work with, so what can I do? I can decrease portion sizes and join virtual gym classes.'” As a result, she just hit her 20-pound weight-loss goal.

Miller's research revealed that she wasn't alone in embracing a new attitude toward her diet. In examining food-related trends in her Massachusetts community, she says she expected “stories of panic buying and stress eating,” but instead found “insights into how food can soothe the soul, especially in trying times.” Many respondents shared that they had been enjoying more family meals together, cooking as a group activity, and spending more time talking and bonding while eating, sometimes in real time, sometimes virtually. Some used the relative scarcity of meat to finally switch to plant-based diets.

Taub-Dix, who as a New York City dietician has continued to see clients via Zoom, FaceTime and by phone, reports similar changes. “More people are cooking for themselves, and they're not going out to restaurants where they have warm bread and butter to start, and someone wheels out a dessert cart afterward,” she says.

Because of this quarantine, many Americans are, for the first time, forced to make some of the changes nutritional experts have been recommending forever. And if we come out of this crisis with anything extra, it should be the knowledge that these habits are, in fact, possible to cultivate.

More tips for holding the line:

  1. Shop smart. For years, we've been told to avoid processed food at all costs. But processing can mean a lot of different things, says Taub-Dix. A lot of food processing is done to make it shelf-stable. Read labels and avoid foods that have been stripped of nutrients (refined grains, for instance) or have lots of added sugar in favor of those with shorter ingredients lists — but don't only go by the length of the list to determine a food's value. Instead of the traditional advice to “shop the perimeter” of the grocery store, Taub-Dix suggests “making the most of the middle": Buy frozen or canned fruits and vegetables, cans of beans and legumes, and, from the bread aisle, items made with whole grains.

  2. Tune into your cravings. “It's important to dig deep and see how you're feeling, or whether or not you really are hungry, but also, what you're really hungry for,” says Taub-Dix. Do you want something hot or cold, sweet or savory, crunchy or smooth? Really satisfying a craving is more likely to keep you from going back for more.

  3. Bake less, cook more. So many people have turned to baking to relieve boredom or as a fun project to do with kids. But baking usually makes a large amount of sugary or fatty food. Try halving your recipes and focus on getting kids to help cook more nutritious meals and snacks. Research shows they're more likely to try eating it if they help make it.

  4. Linger at dinner. Europeans have known this forever, but not rushing through a meal gives your brain time to actually receive the signal from your stomach that you're full, which helps to prevent overeating. Now that you have the time, make eating an occasion: Set the table, use fancy flatware and sit down together.

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