So You’ve Gained Weight During the Pandemic: Now What?

Person weighing themself on scale.

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We’ve all been through an extremely challenging time. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected each of us in different and inequitable ways.

Some of us have lost friends and loved ones to the virus. Others have lost jobs or been furloughed or struggled financially. Most of us have sheltered at home. Vast parts of our lives ground to a halt or were moved online. Those who had the privilege to work from home did so while schooling children and caring for other family members. Those who lived alone became cut off.

If you survived the pandemic, that is an accomplishment in and of itself. Many more people than ever before are experiencing anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation.

Sadly, many people have been fretting about weight gain in themselves or others, or have been pathologizing emotional eating. Many are berating themselves for not “using the time more productively.”

If you are one of these people, we hope this article provides some context. Whether you decided to use any newfound time to undertake a new exercise regimen, bake bread, or just watch Netflix, the first thing is to remember that none of those activities is morally superior to any other.

Weight Gain During Quarantine

Eating disorder specialist and dietitian Anna Sweeney, MS, RD, LDN, CEDRD-S says, “Gaining weight in the context of surviving the last year is not the worst-case scenario. Diet and wellness culture suggesting that it is? A marketing tactic with the intention of keeping us all at the behest of a $71 billion industry. The fact that the industry started pandering about body change 10 days into quarantine is a very clear demonstration that the industry is not actually invested in your well-being.”

Most importantly, bodies change! And age! And grow! And we all must accept that reality. Despite the many messages in our society and from industries that try to sell us products to prevent these outcomes, we are better off accepting than resisting. This is normal.

What to Do Instead of Dieting

So rather than jumping on the diet bandwagon, consider these strategies for developing a healthy relationship with food.

Focus on Eating Regularly Without Restriction

Do not diet! In addition to not working, diets are often the gateway to an eating disorder. It will make you feel deprived and can lead to poor concentration and preoccupation with food. It can also lead to binge eating and weight cycling which brings negative health consequences.

There’s no need to be rigid—just try to have a general plan for each day so you know when each meal will occur and some idea of what you will eat. Continue to eat foods that you enjoy while trying to include some foods from each of the various food groups.

When we become restrictive and try to eliminate fun foods, we increase our likelihood of bingeing on them.

Beware of the Exercise Trap

As alluring as the pull to restrict one’s eating is the urge to return to or add intense exercise. Many will be returning to gyms and there will be many people announcing resolutions to “get back in shape.”

Movement should be done for the sake of overall health including cardiovascular and muscle strength, flexibility, and mood improvement. But exercise for the sake of weight loss or to offset eating or undo weight gain quickly becomes punishing, unpleasant, burdensome, and harder to sustain.

Furthermore, excessive exercise can be dangerous. Try to pick activities that are joyful and be sure to moderate and not overdo it.

Practice Body Respect and Compassion

Don’t shame yourself or others for weight gain—let’s treat all bodies with respect. Bodies come in all sizes and shapes and we should acknowledge and celebrate the diversity of nature.

If you have the financial security to do so, focus on having regular meals evenly distributed throughout the day—for most people this will comprise three meals and one to three snacks. Plan your meals ahead of time to reduce the likelihood of binge episodes, minimize waste, and create a feeling of emotional security.

For those who have used food to cope with an extremely difficult situation: we see you and we commend your resilience. There’s no shame in having done what you needed to survive a tough year. If you baked bread or muffins or brought in fast food, congratulate yourself for your creativity, problem-solving, and self-care.

Beating yourself up for gaining weight serves no purpose. It will not help you lose weight, and it will not make you feel better. When we engage in self-criticism, it increases emotional distress.

Dieting will likely just lead to more distress. We know that diets only work in the short term, if they work at all. At five years, weight loss maintenance is around 3%. One-third to two-thirds of dieters regain more weight than they lost.

Instead, practice self-compassion. Acts of kindness and self-compassion can improve our mental well-being. Practice speaking kindly to yourself and appreciating your body for getting you through this tough year.

Refresh Your Wardrobe

Ensure you have clothes that fit you now. If you have clothes that you have outgrown, fold them up. If you are not ready to donate them, put them in the back of the closet out of view.

Refusing to buy clothes in a bigger size while struggling with clothes that do not fit you now only exacerbates the distress of getting dressed in the morning.

You do not need to spend a fortune—just gather a few pieces that fit your body now and make you feel good. Going up a size should not be the subject of judgement—it is what it is. It is not a personal failure, although the culture will try to get you to believe that.

Curate Your Social Media Feed

Check your social media feed. Diet culture is rampant and ubiquitous on social media. If your social media feed is inundated by posts focusing on weight loss or before and after photos or “shedding the quarantine weight,” it will make you feel worse.

Unfollow anyone glorifying dieting and follow instead people promoting body positivity and Health At Every Size.

Accept That Anxiety Is Normal

As you venture out post-pandemic, you may have anxiety. Quarantine has allowed us all to avoid in-person social situations. It has enabled those with body image concerns to conveniently avoid and feel temporary relief from in person contact. Many of us were not even seen from the neck down by anyone other than immediate family for over a year.

Opening back up means the return to in-person activities, which can aggravate underlying insecurity, reignite problematic behaviors, or lead to increased anxiety in the aftermath of weight gain. Accept that this anxiety is to be expected and talk about it and plan for it.

If you’re having an urge to avoid seeing people after it is safe to do so, please reach out for support. Avoidance of social circumstances—whether due to social anxiety or body image concerns—can make problems worse.

How to Re-Engage With Society After Quarantine

Make a list of different social situations in which you will re-engage. Rank them in terms of level of fear or difficulty. Make a ladder, and start to approach some of the easier situations first.

You can make the first such outings easier by perhaps enlisting a sympathetic friend to accompany you. Once you have been successful at that first outing, remind yourself that you can do it and then slowly work your way up the ladder.

Set Boundaries With People Still in Diet Culture

Sweeney suggests, “As you re-join your communities, make it a priority to establish boundaries about acceptable conversations: Ask your people to join you in making your return to normal a space for no body talk, or calorie talk, or diet talk. Stop greeting other humans with reflective body commentary."

Sweeney goes on to note that if your body has changed, you might feel the need to announce that or make fun of yourself. But doing so might make the person you're speaking to feel badly about themselves.

Although we realize our body may have changed, it is most likely not something someone else is going to be focusing on, so why bring more attention to it? Plus, if you're too focused on how you look or how other people look, you'll miss out on the chance to tell others just how much you've missed them.

Seek community among others who are resisting diet culture. The Health at Every Size movement acknowledges that body size does not determine health or worthiness. Join an online or other group focused on Health at Every Size, Intuitive Eating, or Fat Positivity to learn more.

Focus on Your Values

If you find yourself focusing on your weight, consider whether this focus is aligned with your values. Does it advance the values you hold dear? Does it add to or detract from the important relationships in your life?

Similarly, think about whether reducing your body size will really change things in the way you want. How will your life really be different if you lose however many pounds? How do you want to be remembered after you die—do you want to be remembered for your body size or your other features?

Work to Challenge Weight Stigma

Please don’t feel shame for not wanting to gain weight, or for wanting to lose weight. It is okay to want to change your behaviors that may have caused the weight gain. That is understandable. Diet culture and the glorification of thinner bodies are the soup we all swim in. Fatphobia is a normal response to growing up in this culture.

But please don’t disparage your or other people’s bodies that are bigger or may have gained weight.

Let’s focus on creating a respectful, judgment-free community. By making the world a safer place to have a bigger body we make the world a safer place for all bodies.

Emerging From the Pandemic

As we come out of this challenging time, practice moving ahead without succumbing to the pressure to focus on any weight gain.

Sweeney notes, “Bodies change. This is a fact. If they changed in the last 12 months, they may well have changed pandemic or not. Your body is not a problem. Please don’t let wellness culture suggest that a changing body is a reflection of your humanity, your goodness, and your belonging.”

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Lauren Muhlheim, PsyD, CEDS
 Lauren Muhlheim, PsyD, is a certified eating disorders expert and clinical psychologist who provides cognitive behavioral psychotherapy.