Anxious over COVID-19 weight gain? Experts say go easy on yourself

For Canadians anxious about how much weight they've gained during the pandemic, experts say crash diets aren't the answer. Focus on nutritional changes you can maintain long term, and in the meantime, don't worry. Chances are no one will really notice you've changed.

As things open up and people start to go out, there's a lot of pressure to 'look your best'

Deborah Berwick, 43, decided she needed to lose weight because she wanted to be able to keep up with her son as he got bigger and more active.  (Gary Berwick )

Of the many experiences during the pandemic, tight pants are low on the list of serious complaints. But for many people, the prospect of returning to normal life could bring with it anxiety about weight gain and how they look. 

It's something Gillian Turnbull, a 42-year-old writer and university professor in Toronto, has thought about more than she'd like. She has gained about 10 pounds since last March, and is not happy about it.

"It's not appealing at all," she said. "It's had an impact on how I perceive myself and how I think others are looking at me, even though I know everybody is going through this to some degree. I'm still totally consumed by how I've changed and how I must appear."

The prospect of having to eventually teach classes in person only adds to the anxiety, she said.

"I had a funny thought the other day. If I have to go back to work, none of my suit jackets are going to fit." 

Even though she's been working out at home most days, it hasn't been enough to keep her weight at its pre-pandemic level. 

"I think it's a combination of things, because I have tried the whole year to be active under the constraints I'm under " she said. But when she was going into the office, her daily routine required a lot of walking, climbing stairs and standing.

Turnbull isn't alone.

A recent report from the Agrifoods Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University found 42.3 per cent of Canadians said they had gained weight unintentionally during the pandemic. 
Gillian Turnbull, a 42-year-old writer and university professor in Toronto, says she has gained about 10 pounds since last March. (/ Pete Johnston)

For some people who have been taking care of children at home while also working, it has been difficult to prioritize healthy eating and exercise. 

That was the case for 43-year-old Deborah Berwick, a single mother of a two-year-old. At the beginning of the pandemic she didn't weigh herself or even have a scale in the house. This spring, when she realized she'd gone up two clothing sizes, she bought one. She says stepping on the scale has been "sobering". 

"I weigh about the same now as I did when I was nine months pregnant".

A diet is a terrible hobby with a very low return on investment in terms of pleasure, money and time.- Dr. Jennifer Mills. psychologist 

She decided she needed to lose weight because she wanted to be able to keep up with her son as he grew and got more active. She also admitted to thoughts she called more "destructive" — fear of what people will think about her: 

"He's going to be going to preschool in the fall, so I'm going to be meeting other parents on a more regular basis, and I don't know…. There's a bit of worry about judgment maybe." 

Berwick and Turnbull have taken different approaches to weight loss. 

Turnbull is trying a low-carbohydrate, vegetarian keto diet, which she said can be a challenge because beans and fruit are both off the menu. 

Berwick, who has actively tried to resist dieting, has started a 12-week plan with a nutritionist, with a focus on "deprogramming diet culture, and intuitive eating" which she said means "not counting calories or making certain foods good foods or bad foods. More listening to what your body needs to do what you want it to do."

"I feel like I need to talk about it to somebody, which is why I thought the nutritionist would be a good route because I guess it's someone whose judgment I don't really care about that much." 

How do you 'deprogram' diet culture?

A therapist might be another option, and that could be part of the reason (in addition to the fact that online support has become more accessible) that mental health providers have seen a surge in demand, according to Dr. Jennifer Mills. She's a psychologist and an associate professor at York University in Toronto who researches eating behaviour, eating disorders and body image, social media and how they intersect. 
Berwick's health plan includes 'not counting calories or making certain foods good foods or bad foods. More listening to what your body needs to do what you want it to do.' (Sebastien Jaramillo)
"The good news is we're moving towards reopening and getting back to normal. The bad news is body-image wise, it means a lot of pressure for people to 'look their best.' My prediction is that it's going to increase a lot of social anxiety and appearance anxiety when we all start to emerge from our houses." 

This pressure can come from what we are seeing online. It can also come from our friends. 

"There's a phenomenon we call 'fat talk' ….sort of like a social contagion effect where the social norm is if somebody talks about body dissatisfaction or feeling fat other people are expected to chime in and commiserate with that person." 

Her recipe for fighting the urge to diet? Stay away from social media, avoid diet talk and resist advertising that is meant to provoke insecurity (particularly for things like diet teas or cleanses).

She said this can be easier to explain to clients who have a clinical diagnosis for an eating disorder because you can frame it as 'this is necessary for recovery," whereas for the general public, "it's socially reinforced that you are doing something good for yourself" if you go on a diet, detox or cleanse.

Instead of dieting, do a deeper examination of why you feel the need to lose weight. That's where therapy can help. She says it can be a 'leap of faith' to try to believe that if you accept yourself at your current weight, you will be happy. 

You're probably not as fat as you think

Another bit of good news: Mills, who has been studying body image for close to 20 years, says you probably don't look as bad as you think you do, and there's scientific research to back that up.

"It's really striking how poor people are at perceiving their bodies the way they actually are, and people can say that they think that they've gained weight and we don't really know what that means because our visual systems aren't that good at imprinting an accurate representation of what our body is like.

"We don't have a photographic memory, so when you look in the mirror and you think that you've gained weight, we're not exactly sure what that means from a visual perspective. There's no way for your brain to compare what you looked like six months ago in its mind's eye to what you are seeing now, so it becomes more of an emotional or affective reaction."

And if you don't know what you looked like when the pandemic started, chances are your friends, students or work colleagues don't know what you looked like either, and will be more focused on themselves.

"I hope that maybe people's attention will be diverted to other things like travel and hobbies; things that have nothing to do with appearance, and we could try to find some pleasure in things that have nothing to do with body weight and shape", said Dr. Mills with this added reminder: "A diet is a terrible hobby with a very low return on investment in terms of pleasure, money, and time." 

But what if you still want to lose weight?

While some have used the time during the pandemic to get into shape, the majority of Canadians have become less active, according to research by ParticipAction (specifically those working from home), and there is some evidence that is having an effect on people's weight. 

"We're just spending more time being sedentary. We no longer have to necessarily get up and walk to the car, walk to public transit and to the office. Now we really just have to walk a couple steps from the bed to the desk," said Leigh Vanderloo, an exercise scientist with the group. 

A heavier reliance on convenience foods and takeout could also be a big part of it.

"Activity definitely plays a role but it's probably closer to 10 or 20 per cent." said Vanderloo.

You should still try to meet Canada's guidelines for 150 minutes a week of moderate to vigorous activity, but more in order to build muscle, strengthen bones, and for the mental and cardiovascular health benefits.

"The main driver shouldn't be because of weight loss because if that's your main goal, a lot of us end up getting disappointed. When you think around New Year's resolutions we tend to drop off because you're exercising an hour a day every single day and you're not really seeing the scale budge, and then people get demotivated thinking what they're doing isn't working," she said.

So to lose weight, you will have to look at what you eat, but a "diet" should just be something that's sustainable, and fuels your body instead of starving it.

"Start with the basics, ensuring that you are getting those basic nutrients for everyday functioning," said Vanderloo. 

That means eating a variety of fruits and vegetables, avoiding sugar-laden drinks, choosing whole grains over simple starches, including some protein and healthy fats, and for the most part, making meals yourself instead of relying on convenience foods and takeout.

"First and foremost if people have learned anything from this pandemic is really not to be too hard on yourself. We're emerging as a society, as a group, as individuals from something that none of us were prepared to deal with." 

Practise self-compassion

As an academic, Gillian Turnbull said she knows the problem is systemic, that employers have the same demands during a pandemic and societal expectations don't let up.

Still, she has a hard time cutting herself some slack when it comes to her shape and appearance. 

"OK I didn't take care of myself, so now I'm fat, so there's self-blame starting from the very beginning of this stuff. And then I think no, I couldn't because my workload was heavy, and then I think no, I should have been a better time manager and gotten up earlier. I should, I should, I should.  But I should also get enough sleep and I should be keeping my house cleaner, then all these things start to pile up"

Self-compassion is something Berwick has also struggled with, but she has this message for herself: 

"The last two years you've been through the ringer, you've had a baby, and then a pandemic and then had to go back to go back to work in a bizarre strange way that you've never had to work before, and the fact that you have put on weight is probably OK and not surprising, and you shouldn't feel bad about it."


Antonia Reed


Antonia Reed is a Producer for CBC Radio based in Toronto.