Just days into the stay-at-home order, the flood of jokey posts and memes began.
Featuring characters from Baby Yoda to a less-slender Ariel the mermaid, many speculated that this time of snacks, stress and stretchy clothes would cause us to gain the “Quarantine 15.”
While some of the posts simply celebrated the comforting power of carbs, others were fat-phobic, a trigger for those with eating disorders. All of them, however, reflected a surge of collective anxiety and out-of-control feelings about gaining weight during the pandemic — worries that, at least so far, seem misplaced.
Despite the very real changes to our routines and diets that the pandemic has caused, we seem to be holding steady.
Data from hundreds of thousands of internet-connected scales found that the average American user gained less than a quarter-pound between March 22 and April 18, according to a study by the connected-device company Withings.
An April survey of about 1,000 Americans by the communications company Hunter found that a majority say they are maintaining their weight, in part because they are cooking at home and eating together as a family more often.
Of course, home cooking isn’t a panacea. On its own, it isn’t necessarily healthier. Popping a frozen pizza in the oven counts as a home-cooked meal.
In addition, the pandemic and subsequent lockdown have hit households unevenly. Those who have been furloughed or laid off may be struggling to afford to put food on the table, while others may have more time to cook the plentiful groceries they get delivered to their door.
And we are indeed eating between meals more often. According to the Hunter survey, 46% of respondents said they were snacking more. That number climbed to 50% among households with kids.
Still, cooking and eating at home may prove to be beneficial to our health.
“Eating out is generally associated with increased calorie intake,” said Dr. Donald Hensrud, director of the Mayo Clinic Healthy Living Program. “When we’re not making the food, we don’t know exactly what goes in it.”
In addition, many restaurants focus on quantity, he said. When people go out to eat, they may be “less inhibited” when presented with a supersized meal.
In comfort and health
In response to the coronavirus, many people are grocery shopping less frequently, which means what we’re buying has shifted toward more shelf-stable foods and frozen, canned or dried fruits and vegetables.
While we tend to think of these foods as less healthy than fresh, they may not be. The taste may be different, but fresh doesn’t always mean more nutritious, Hensrud said.
“Frozen vegetables are often, from a nutritional standpoint, healthier than fresh, especially if fresh vegetables sit on the shelf for longer,” he said, because frozen veggies are preserved as soon as they are picked, holding onto their nutrients.
“Canned beans, dried beans, frozen fish, whole grains, all those things have a long shelf life and are relatively healthy,” said Hensrud.
That’s why Hensrud said there might be a silver lining in staying at home.
“If you have more time to cook and you are around family, you can turn this into a positive experience,” he said.
We don’t know the impact dietary changes during the pandemic will have on our health, but Hensrud said past research shows that major events can cause dramatic health shifts.
“During World War II, in some countries, there was a marked decrease in heart attacks,” he said, likely because people ate less fat and smoked less.
For the duration of this pandemic, Hensrud suggests creating your own at-home food schedule to avoid what he calls “mindless eating.”
Other experts suggest simply trying for a natural balance.
Christy Harrison, a registered dietitian who calls herself “anti-diet” and hosts the ”Food Psych” podcast, sees all pressure around weight or body size as harmful.
Instead of dieting or restricting certain foods, she suggests trying to take the guilt and shame out of eating in general, to create what she calls a “peaceful, balanced relationship with food.”
That can include comfort foods, she said.
“I think the fact that we’re in a sort of disrupted routine, where a lot of us are eating more ‘processed’ foods and shelf-stable foods and things that diet culture tends to demonize brings up a lot of anxiety,” she said.
But if there ever was a time to let go of the pressure to lose weight, it’s now, Harrison said.
“This is a time of unprecedented stress for most of us, and you know, it’s really adding to our stress and anxiety to be worrying about food and our bodies,” she said. “It’s just not necessary.”