Weight gain during the coronavirus pandemic has become a thing and is jokingly referred to as “the Covid 19” – a play on “the freshman 15”; the 15 pounds many college freshmen gain when left to their own devices for the first time.
If you find yourself turning to food to de-stress and can’t seem to break the cycle of overeating, oversnacking, or eating unhealthy foods that are easy on the palate but hard on the gut and waistline, the answer may not lie in the food itself, but instead, in the lifestyle practices surrounding the food.
Here are our top 5 tips to adhering to a healthy diet during quarantine, and while some of them may not seem food-related, if you follow these tips, you’ll find yourself making better choices in the kitchen that may even lead to a few pounds lost.
Tip 1: Sleep – Sleep is strongly associated with dietary choices and body weight. A 2008 study published in Sleep found that adults with short sleep duration were 55% more likely to develop obesity (and children were 89% more likely!). Many studies have since confirmed these findings. The strong link between sleep and weight gain is multifactorial. First, those who don’t sleep well are less motivated during the day to exercise or expend unnecessary energy, therefore burning fewer calories. Second, lack of sleep disrupts the endocrine system, leading to an imbalance in hormones, which encourages overeating. In a state of inadequate sleep, hormones associated with hunger are elevated while those associated with satiety (or the feelings of fullness) are suppressed. It’s been shown that those who get good sleep on a regular basis eat fewer calories than those who get poor sleep.
Sleep also influences our food choices. A 2013 study published in Nature Communications reported that lack of sleep actually alters brain function in the areas where food desires and choices take place. Specifically, a decrease of activity was observed in the appetite evaluation region of the frontal and insula cortexes and a heightened activity observed in the amygdala. Researchers saw that, following poor sleep these alterations in brain function were strongly associated with a significant increase in the consumption of “weight-gain promoting high-calorie foods”.
So, if poor food choices are what are ailing you during this time at home, we recommend first and foremost, focusing on your sleep. Getting 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night is what defines adequate sleep for the average adult. While healthy sleep durations may differ between individuals, some basic sleep guidelines can help you arrive at what’s best for you:
- Give your stomach a bedtime. Nothing good happens in your digestive tract after the sun goes down. Your stomach actually has a bedtime and its activity (including hormones and enzymes associated with digestion) slows in the evenings and doesn’t ramp up again until the sun comes up. Commit to not eating after 8pm.
- Avoid all electronic devices within 1 hour before going to bed and commit to keeping all electronic devices out of the bedroom. Electronics can be extremely disruptive to your sleep and can interfere with how easily you fall asleep as well as your quality of sleep throughout the night.
- Choose a relaxation method to get you ready for sleep within 30 minutes before your bedtime. Whether it’s reading a book, taking a warm bath or shower, yoga, or a mind-body practice that incorporates meditation and/or breathing, choose what’s best for you and stick to it. This will help you relax and get your body ready for a good night’s sleep.
- Consider going to bed when the sun goes down. Following natural circadian rhythms is the best thing for your body, and your microbes! Going to sleep when the sun goes down and waking up with the rising sun can help increase the likelihood of a good night’s sleep and can also improve a whole host of health parameters, including hormonal and gut bacteria balance.
Tip 2: Fast – Fasting isn’t about what you eat, but about when you eat. Fasting (also referred to as intermittent fasting) can lead to better health markers (including cholesterol, blood pressure, body weight, and body fat), easier weight loss, and has proven to be an effective treatment method for some diseases. For optimal benefit, we recommend fasting anywhere between 14 and 18 hours in each 24-hour period, as well as in between meals. Implementing your fast between dinner and breakfast goes hand-in-hand with giving your stomach a bedtime. Ending your dinner around 6 or 7 pm and waiting to eat breakfast till 9 or 10 am seems to work well for many people. Others find it easier to eat breakfast and dinner, while skipping lunch and implementing their fast during the daytime. And still others opt for dinner only, while skipping daytime eating altogether. We recommend finding what works best for you and your schedule and making it a routine.
While you may think that fasting would increase your calorie intake in a 24-hour period because of the excessive hunger you’ll experience during the time in between meals, this is actually not the case. Studies show that calorie consumption doesn’t increase, and can in fact decrease in some individuals with fasting. In fact, consuming the same number of calories and foods alongside intermittent fasting results in improved health and body weight parameters when compared to consuming those foods without fasting. If 14 to 18 hours seems unsurmountable to you, try a gradual increase in fasting time, starting at 10 or 12 hours in between meals, then gradually increasing.
Tip 3: Find a restful outlet – If food is how you deal with stressful situations, finding an alternative and implementing a new way to de-stress when food cravings strike can be a game-changer in the stress eating cycle. Some examples of good replacements include taking a warm bath, going for a walk, lying down and meditating or deep breathing for 10 minutes, reading a book, exercising, etc. Each time you find yourself tempted to eat in order to ease your stress, try to pick one of these healthier choices instead.
Tip 4: Keep processed foods out of your actual and virtual carts – The most important and effective way to avoid eating unhealthy foods is by not purchasing them in the first place. If unhealthy food items don’t make it into the confines of your home, they won’t make it into your body! I can’t stress this enough. It’s not necessarily the reaching for the unhealthy food that’s the problem, but the physical act of placing the item into your cart (or driving through the drive-thru) in the first place that’s the problem. Avoiding this initial act can save you lots of struggle in the long run. Remember, it’s not necessarily the consumption of excessive calories that causes us to gain weight, but the consumption of unhealthy calories in the form of added sugars, trans-fats, and processed carbohydrates. Focus on stocking up on healthful foods in your home and getting rid of any items that may tempt you.