Ottawa

Why some are calling it 'COVID-19 pounds'

We're told to stay home during this pandemic, and so we should. But home is where the fridge is, and many of us are eating our way through this crisis, laying the groundwork for different health problems.

We're told to stay home during the pandemic, but home is where the fridge is

One month into self-isolation, stepping on a scale has become a scary prospect for some of us. (iStock/Getty Images)

You've seen the endless images of homemade bread, the sourdough-saturated social media. You've read about friends who are eschewing fitted attire for the the elastic freedom of sweat pants. You've heeded the siren call of local restaurants offering comfort food to go in a time of crisis.

If COVID-19 is the front line, then there's a slowly expanding flank at the rear. Call it the "COVID-19 pounds."

This pandemic is keeping us out of the gym and staying the blazes home. Ah, but home is where the fridge is.

"We know that people 'comfort' with food because it's literally comforting," said Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, a medical doctor and director of a weight management centre in Ottawa. "Eating helps to reduce our stress hormones, especially perhaps sugary foods, so that's a possible player. So, too, is boredom. So, too, might be alcohol and other liquid calories."

'All things in moderation'

Brent Moloughney, Ottawa's associate medical officer of health, acknowledged this week that "there are adverse impacts of doing what we're doing, both from a social and mental health perspective."

Regarding our collective carb fixation? "All things in moderation," Moloughney advised.

Dr. Brent Moloughney, Ottawa's associate medical officer of health, said physical distancing can take a toll on mental health and encouraged residents to find other ways to maintain social relationships. 1:42

But wait, you're getting out there for a walk every day as per the directives of Ottawa Public Health, right?  

"Our activity level has dropped dramatically," said Peter Lin, a family physician and medical contributor on CBC.

"So now we're sitting at home. We're not going to work. We're not shopping. We're not seeing friends. We're not going out. The amount of activity that we're doing has dropped 80 to 90 per cent."

Peter Lin is a family doctor and frequent contributor to CBC. Is he turning to food for solace during COVID-19? 'Yes, definitely.' (Samantha Lui/CBC)

Of course, there are those who are managing to get even more exercise than they used to. The joggers are out in force, dodging their way around town.

But for many, that one hour of allotted exercise time is simply enough to counterbalance a suddenly sedentary lifestyle, or those lumberjack meals.

"The amount of food availability has dramatically increased," Lin said, "so you've got more food coming in and you're not burning it off. So that's why we're starting to look like big bears that are going to be hibernating sometime soon." 

Then, there's the emotional eating. "When you have acute stress, then as an animal you just run away. Fight or flight. But in this case it's more like chronic stress. Every day you wake up and you turn on the news and everything is all bad," Lin said.

He believes animals associate chronic stress with famine. "I think when your brain detects chronic stress, it says, 'Go and eat,' because if you find food then you will have survived the famine."

Waste it or waist it

Finding yourself worried about running out of essentials before the online order comes in? Or putting off your potentially dangerous shopping trip to get groceries? There's a newfound urge not to waste food.

"But then we have to decrease the amount that we're cooking," Lin pointed out. "Let's cook the right amount, and that way we won't overeat because we don't want to waste."

During the early days of a terrifying life-altering pandemic ... we should cut ourselves some slack.- Dr. Yoni Freedhof

So what's a few kilos, in the COVID-19 context? Maybe it's really just small potatoes, albeit buttered. 

Or maybe not. Lin worries about chronic health problems waiting in the wings while the acute crisis of COVID-19 holds centre stage. 

"We have all these underlying diseases that are brewing. High blood pressure, cholesterol, heart disease — they're not taking a break. All those chronic diseases are still marching along."

So if baking bread or rubbing a roast is what gets a family through, Freedhoff said, these are extraordinary times.

"When it comes to weight or healthy living as a whole, our goals should be to live the healthiest lives that we can honestly enjoy. Perhaps during the early days of a terrifying life-altering pandemic, our bests might not be as awesome as they once were, but that they're still our best, and we should cut ourselves some slack."

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