Here we are in who knows which month of the pandemic, and most of us are probably looking at a bowl of Halloween candy, having that internal dialogue:  Reese’s cups stay, Hershey’s Special Dark chocolate stays, candy corn is up for debate (will decide later), and Tootsie rolls, Smarties, and peanut butter kisses go in the dish for the Trick-or-Treaters.  Those last three are wrapped, so of course they are pandemic-friendly.  Then, we look down and realize we’re making these high-powered decisions while dressed in our pajama pants because our sweatpants no longer fit.  Why don’t our sweatpants fit?  Did you gain weight since last March?

While we were locked down, we didn’t find our exercise bicycle (probably because it was serving as a clothes rack in the basement), but we did find our quarantine baking gene.  We didn’t even know we had such a gene until somebody posted a picture of fancy focaccia bread on social media and we instinctively began baking.  And baking.  And eating.  And baking and eating, because nothing soothes the soul like eating something that looks more like art than food.  Nonetheless, we managed to put on a few pounds.  That excess weight has been dubbed the COVID-15, a moniker equivalent to the maligned Freshman-15.  Fifteen pounds is the purported amount of weight college freshman gain their first year away at school.

But, what if I told you that neither is as they appear?  Surveys have found that the average person has gained roughly 8 pounds, not 15, during the pandemic – about 1 pound per month since our trauma started.  And being a freshman in college has nothing to do with post-high school weight gain – the culprit is adulthood.  Non-college bound teens also gain weight.  Regardless, you’re probably still not feeling a whole lot better if you’re finding that your underwear are too tight.  So, let’s put a positive spin on our pandemic weight gain.

Thank our prehistoric bodies caught in the midst of modern-day strain.  When we are physically, mentally, or emotionally strained, levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, increases.  This is a natural occurrence to prepare us for stressful situations.  It is also a complex response with both physiological and psychological components.  Physiologically, the increase in this hormone causes our blood glucose (sugar) level to drop, triggering our craving for food, which leads to eating.  Psychologically, the reward centers of the brain are stimulated, and we then tend to overeat and then overeating becomes a habit – especially if sugary, fatty, starchy foods are just a stone’s throw away from the recliner.  We are genetically programmed to prepare for stressful situations.  But, increased cortisol levels over a prolonged period of time can lead to disease.

Don’t be too harsh on yourself now.  If you’ve gained weight, it’s okay.  The key is to maintain a healthy, lean weight – and there is no magical number for that.  There are some common measurements, like Body Mass Index (BMI), Body Fat Percentage (BFP), and Waist Circumference, that are often cited to help your assessment.  BMI is the ratio of height to weight.  There are numerous online calculators available to help you find your ideal BMI, but this measurement cannot differentiate among bone weight, muscle mass, or fat distribution.  There’s a big difference between a body builder’s BMI and Mr. Couch Potato’s.  Just watch any NFL game for 2 minutes to get my point.  Body fat percentage is the amount of weight that comes from fat.  However, you’re not going to have the equipment sitting around your house to get an accurate measure here.  Does anybody have skin fold calipers or a dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry (DXA) at home?  Waist circumference measures body fat – sort of- around your midriff using a tape measure placed above your hip bones.  Numbers no more than 40 inches for men and 35 inches for non-pregnant women are considered healthy.  Yet, these are just numbers because again, we can look at trained athletes and even Sumo wrestlers and discover something else.  Sumo wrestlers eat 7,000 calories per day and tip the scales between 300 and 400 pounds, yet they are healthy.  One of the greatest risk factors for medical issues, such as cardiovascular disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes, is visceral fat.  The word viscera refers to organs, so this is the fat surrounding internal organs in your trunk.  Some is good because it protects organs (you don’t feel your liver jostling around when you do jumping jacks), but like so much in life, too much isn’t grand.  Visceral fat is also tricky to measure because we can’t see it.  It is only visible on MRI and CT scans – and during cadaver dissection.  If you’re a cadaver, it’s too late to care.

So, now that you’re wondering what in the world you are supposed to do or think about fat, here’s the skinny:  The best things you can do is eat a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains; eat less processed foods; drink fewer sweetened beverages; get plenty of outdoor exercise; and have a little fun every day.  Doing this will allow everything else to fall in place.  This is how the longest-lived people on our planet approach each day.  They engage in practices designed for life-long health, not short-term weight loss.  Our ancestors never dieted, nor should you.

Decision made about the candy corn:  Keep, but add peanuts, since legumes should be part of the daily diet.

Signing Off For Science