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May 6, 2021 | 7 minute read

The Pandemic Weight Gain: Is it Time for an Eating Habit Reset?

People often gain a pound or two during the winter season, but this year many are feeling overwhelmed by seeing a much greater increase on the scale. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, people have typically reported gaining 15 to 30 pounds. And according to one report, one in ten people reported a gain of more than 50 pounds.

Weight Gain During COVID-19 Pandemic

Participants in the Health eHeart Study, whose weight was automatically transmitted to researchers from a bluetooth-connected “smart scale,” gained an average of 1.5 pounds per month from February to June 2020, according to researchers at the University of California, San Francisco.

A longer-term view of weight changes based on self-report comes from the 2020 Stress in AmericaTM and 2021 Pandemic Anniversary surveys conducted by the American Psychological Association. Out of more than 3,000 U.S. adults in this study, a whopping 42% reported unintended weight gain. Among those people, the average gain was 29 pounds. Parents and essential workers averaged over 35 pounds gained. And one in ten of those whose weight increased reported a gain of more than 50 pounds.

Although it may be tempting to address this gain with a diet that promises to get all that weight off fast, more restrictive diets tend to be short-lived. Rather than a bandage that doesn’t really address the problems behind the weight gain, consider other strategies.

Strategy 1: Reset How You Gauge How Much to Eat

When do you stop eating? Is it when you feel “full”? Do you go by a clean plate, or perhaps clean pans (no leftovers)? Many diets targeting weight loss set specific portion limits. But if pre-set limits trigger a sense of deprivation that ends up prompting overeating, you might try another approach.

Consider the cultural tradition in Okinawa, Japan, one of the Blue Zones of the world where people commonly not only live, but thrive into their 100s. For generations, people here have intoned the phrase “hara hachi bu” before each meal. It’s a reminder to stop eating when they’re 80% full. If you try this, you may be surprised at how satisfied you are when you stop eating sooner than usual.

The difference between stopping when you are “no longer hungry” versus when you are “full” could reportedly cut total daily calories by roughly 20 percent without counting or measuring, and without going hungry. This can be challenging when eating quickly and in an environment with a TV or other distractions. Over the years, people I’ve worked with have found it helpful to consider this like listening for a whisper rather than waiting until they hear a signal that’s like a shout.

Here are some tips that can help you eat more mindfully and check for internal hunger cues before going on “auto-pilot” to get more:

  • Start with smaller plates to automatically limit the size of your first serving.
  • Put a smaller than usual portion of food on your plate. For example, start with a quarter less than usual for everything but vegetables.
  • Keep serving bowls off the table so that fetching more food is the result of an urge and an effort rather than an automatic response to seeing more food.

Remember, the aim is not to trick yourself into eating too little. In each case, getting more food is fine if you are still hungry. The goal is simply to make your choice of portions more mindful.

Strategy 2: Reset Your Awareness of Enjoying Food

Does eating less than usual sound like missing out on pleasure? Actually, studies consistently show a phenomenon called “hedonic adaptation,” in which the pleasure of tasting any food decreases continuously after the first few bites.

Test this with your favorite food. Most people are surprised to find that even special treats taste best in the first few bites. You’re not alone if you realize that you’ve stopped paying attention to savor your food by the time you reach your last few bites. And that means that skipping that last bit is not missing any pleasure moments at all.

Pleasure-focused eating is driven by reward pathways in the brain. Stress-induced overeating – which increased among many people during the COVID-19 pandemic – is an example of a disorder of reward mechanisms that is especially likely when people don’t know how or feel able to use other techniques to manage stress.

In addition to the ideas above that make it easier to tune into body hunger signals, here are some tips to use what scientists have learned about those signals:

  • Especially when stressed, be cautious about keeping high-sugar/high-fat super-palatable foods handy. Try to recognize stress-based urges to eat and use a voice of self-compassion to seek out other forms of stress relief – like going for a walk or connecting with a friend or family member. Build up your skill with choices that ease stress and leave you with a positive outcome afterwards.
  • Let sensory-specific satiety work for you. If you’ve ever felt completely full after dinner, but suddenly find an appetite when dessert appeared, you’ve experienced sensory-specific satiety. Greater variety of foods like sweets and processed snack foods that are concentrated in calories tends to promote more eating and increased calorie consumption. Limit how many options of these foods you put out, and how many flavors of these foods you keep on hand at one time.
  • Get a variety of food from different kinds of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and pulses (like dried beans). This increases the range of nutrients and protective phytochemicals in your body. It’s also associated with less overweight or obesity, and more successful weight loss in people with reduced dietary calories.

Strategy 3: Reset Your Choices to Protect Long-Term Health

When you look at the “rules” of a weight loss diet, consider if it fits with what you hear about overall healthy eating. The good news is that by creating eating habits that gradually come closer and closer to the AICR Recommendations for Cancer Prevention, you are on a path to better health and a healthy weight. Here are some tips:

  • Tag sugar-sweetened drinks, ultra-processed snack foods and sweets, French fries and other typical “fast foods” as occasional choices only. AICR’s Third Expert Report shows strong evidence linking these food choices to weight gain and overweight or obesity. Recent research suggests that these super-palatable, high-calorie foods may trigger neuronal pathways that make limiting consumption harder. More research is needed, but for years we’ve known that because these foods are concentrated in calories, it’s easy to overdo before you sense fullness.
  • Build your meals using AICR’s New American Plate. Make vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans the stars of your plate at each meal. They supply dietary fiber, nutrients and phytochemicals that protect against cancer development. Eating more fiber can help with weight management, too. We used to think this satiety mainly stemmed from increased bulk helping you feel full. Now research suggests that as gut microbes break down certain types of fiber, the short-chain fatty acids that form may help trigger satiety signals.
  • If this style of eating is a big switch for you, take it step by step. Consider joining AICR’s Healthy10 Challenge. It’s a free, 10-week online program that guides you in creating a lifestyle that reduces cancer risk and supports cancer survivors, helps you reach and maintain a healthy weight, and improves overall health. With one challenge per week, it’s a big help to move forward without getting overwhelmed.

Eating habits built around vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans and nuts – in portions that satisfy, but don’t leave you feeling over-stuffed – can be enjoyable. These eating habits fit like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle as part of a healthy lifestyle that should also include daily physical activity to reduce weight gain, support stress management and reduce risk of cancer and other chronic diseases.

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