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Experts: Stop Making People Feel Bad About COVID Weight Gain

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Key Takeaways

  • Many people report gaining weight during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Stress plays a major role in weight regulation and can cause people to gain or lose weight.
  • Experts say that weight isn’t a reliable indicator of health.
  • Commenting on another person’s weight and shaming them about their weight gain can be detrimental to mental health and wellbeing.

If you've gained weight since the onset of the pandemic, you're not alone. According to a recent survey by the American Psychological Association, 61% of adults experienced undesired weight changes since the start of the pandemic, with 42% reporting that they gained more weight than they wanted to.

With the disruption of daily routines, an increase in sedentary lifestyles, and heightened pandemic stress, widespread weight gain is no surprise. But fluctuations in weight throughout many periods of your life—not just the pandemic—are expected and normal.

“It is normal to have some mild fluctuations of weight throughout your life," Andrea Westby, MD, a family medicine physician at the University of Minnesota Medical School and M Health Fairview, tells Verywell. "Large fluctuations in weight, either weight gain or weight loss, can be a sign of stress, trauma, or a disease process. Generally, we expect that people might lose and gain a certain percentage of their body weight at different times due to all sorts of factors.”

With a return to normalcy seemingly on the horizon, diet culture has emerged in full swing—advertising how to shave off those "pandemic pounds." But if you find yourself inclined to make a comment on someone's weight gain and give unsolicited advice on how to lose the pounds, experts say think twice.

“Weight shaming does not work and is often counterproductive," Janet Lydecker, PhD, a licensed psychologist with Yale School of Medicine and director of the Yale Teen POWER clinic, tells Verywell. "An individual’s weight comes from biological factors, such as their metabolism, and from environmental factors, such as powerful food marketing. Shaming shifts blame onto the individual."

How Stress Affects Weight

“Weight regulation is multifactorial and involves genetic factors, activity levels, food quality, environmental factors, but the major regulator of energy intake is the brain," Artur Viana, MD, clinical director of the Metabolic Health & Weight Loss Program at Yale Medicine and an assistant professor of medicine at Yale School of Medicine, tells Verywell. "Any variation on those factors may lead to weight gain or loss."

Stress has plenty of effects on the body that can affect weight, such as:

  • Stress or emotional eating
  • Loss of appetite
  • Lack of motivation to exercise
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Irregular eating patterns, like skipping a meal
  • Change in food preferences, like eating high-calorie foods

“In the context of the pandemic, the stress hormones plus staying at home more might lead to more storage of energy, which may lead to weight gain,” Westby says. However, bodies respond to stress in different ways. While some people report gaining more weight during this time, others may experience the opposite.

Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT), or the calories burned for activities that aren’t sleeping, eating, or exercise, has also significantly reduced, Viana says, which is an important factor in maintaining body weight. Because some people may not be walking to work or going over to a colleague’s desk anymore, they may be burning fewer calories which can contribute to weight gain.

The Connection Between Weight and Health

Weight and health aren't perfectly synonymous. “Weight itself is not a reliable indicator of overall health," Viana says. "As obesity medicine specialists, we try to come up with the best measure possible, but we don't really have a perfect one."

Body mass index (BMI), a body size measurement based on a person’s height and weight, is commonly misconstrued as being able to correctly classify someone's health status. However, it’s not a perfect reflection of the inner-workings of the body.

“It does give us a sense if someone is at risk of developing health issues related to their weight," Viana says. "For instance, we know that the risk of death, or mortality, increases as BMI increases. A problem with BMI is that it does not take into account certain factors such as water and muscle weight, for example, and it needs to be taken into an overall context for each person.”

For example, most of the members of the Milwaukee Brewers baseball team, who followed regimented exercise routines, were eligible for vaccination in Wisconsin because they cross the overweight BMI classification.

“There are people living in larger bodies who are metabolically healthy with no signs of disease, and there are people in smaller bodies with significant chronic health conditions,” Westby says. “From a health perspective, I wouldn’t—and don’t—focus on weight. Weight is not entirely under a person’s control. Weight cannot be equated with behaviors.”

What This Means For You

You shouldn't feel guilty for gaining weight during the pandemic, or during any other period. Weight normally fluctuates due to biological and environmental factors and it does not determine your self-worth or health status.

Mental Health Consequences of Body Shaming

Body shaming by making critical comments about someone's body is often intended as a "motivator" to lose weight. But, according to Lydecker, it often leads to a slew of negative consequences instead, including:

  • Binge eating
  • Dangerous and often unsuccessful attempts to lose weight
  • Depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Affected social relationships
  • Decline in work and school performance
  • Avoidance of medical appointments
  • Increased weight

Negative and unwanted comments about weight can also result in low self-esteem and self-worth. As a general rule, you should never body shame other people and or comment on weight at all. Commenting on other people’s bodies violates personal boundaries and can be especially harmful if they’re recovering from (or in the midst of) an eating disorder or experiencing weight loss due to a medical condition, Westby says.

“If someone is not actively trying to change their weight or body, even a ‘compliment’ can be damaging, in that it is a reminder that other people are noticing and policing your body, or that you didn’t look good enough before at whatever size you were,” Westby adds.

How to Cope With a Negative Body Image

Letting go of negative feelings you have about your body isn’t something that can be achieved overnight. It’s difficult to stop comparing your body to others or even to your past self. Reframing thought patterns and introducing healthy behaviors into your routine requires constant practice.

“We should appreciate and acknowledge the diversity of body sizes and shapes that exist naturally in the world,” Westby says.

Avoid Restrictive Diets

Dieting does not produce long-term outcomes and significant health improvements. Although many people think that it will help them lose weight, it is difficult to maintain a restrictive diet.

It’s much healthier and better for your self-image to eat regularly and refrain from eliminating foods you enjoy. Eating should be both nutritional and joyful. Instead of a restrictive diet, try focusing on all the nutritious foods you can add to your diet.

Exercise for Overall Health

Because pandemic weight gain is very common, getting back in shape has become a priority for many people. However, exercising with the goal of weight loss in mind can be difficult to sustain and may lead to a negative experience. Individuals may punish or overexert themselves to “compensate” for their weight gain.

Instead of forcing yourself to follow crash workout challenges, incorporate activities you enjoy doing into your day-to-day. While some people prefer going to the gym and using exercise equipment, others may thrive best with sports, dance, or other physical activities. Staying active improves sleep quality and reduces anxiety, and as an added benefit, it may lead to weight loss later on if that's a goal you're working toward.

Make Social Media a Safe Space

Harmful diet culture is rampant on social media, from advertisements of weight loss pills to influencers that glorify harmful diet fads. Being exposed to these can frame how a person thinks about weight, reinforce a negative body mindset, and promote unrealistic body standards. It’s best to unfollow these accounts and instead, look to people who promote body positivity.

“There are a lot of really great resources out there to help you build a healthy relationship with food, movement, and your body and eliminate the weight-centric and diet-culture mentality,” Westby says.

If you have friends or acquaintances that constantly bring up diet culture and shame people with different body types, you can educate them about why this is harmful and/or set boundaries to foster a safer environment for yourself.

Challenge Your Own Weight Stigma

It takes a lot of work to let go of your own body-shaming tendencies and internalized negative views of fatness. You have to consistently challenge your biases to understand and address where your negative notions of weight come from.

“Weight shaming is everywhere in our society. The stereotype that people with obesity are lazy is so pervasive that many individuals start to believe this and other obesity stereotypes about themselves,” Lydecker says. “To help reduce this type of stereotyping, we all have to help. We have to notice when we see a stereotype and think about it so we do not let it sink in unconsciously, and challenge it so that our knowledge is applied rather than the stereotype.”

Update Your Wardrobe

Constantly coming across ill-fitting pieces of clothing can be a constant reminder of your weight gain, which can make you feel worse. Putting away, donating, or upcycling the clothes that don’t fit you anymore may help minimize these negative feelings. Consider refreshing your wardrobe with clothing that makes you feel good about your body.

Be Kind to Yourself

“Trying to approach yourself and your body with compassion and gratitude for helping you get through a pandemic is a good start,” Westby says. It's important to applaud your own resilience in navigating life during a stressful period like the pandemic.

The language you use with yourself can have a significant impact on your feelings and behavior, so treat yourself (and more importantly, your body) with kindness and respect. Instead of being your harshest critic, be your biggest supporter. You need to focus on what feels right for you, whether that means losing weight or not.

“You can work on optimizing nutritious foods if that is something that is within your control, moving your body in a way that feels good and is accessible to you, getting enough sleep, drinking plenty of water," Westby says. "This may or may not lead to changes in your weight, but ultimately it’s about helping your body to feel good.”

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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