If you experience unwanted weight gain or weight loss during a pandemic, you are not alone. According to a survey by the American Psychological Association, 61 percent of American adults reported unwanted weight changes since the onset of the pandemic.
The results, published in March 2021, showed that during the pandemic, 42 percent of respondents gained unwanted weight – an average of 29 pounds (13.2 kg), and almost 10 percent of these people gained more than 50 pounds. On the other hand, nearly 18 percent of Americans said they had experienced unwanted weight loss – an average of 26 pounds (11.8 kg).
Another study published on March 22, 2021, estimated weight change in 269 people from February to June 2020. The researchers found that on average, people gained 1.5 pounds (0.7 kg) per month.
I am a neurologist, and my research examines the relationship between diet, lifestyle, stress, and mental disorders such as anxiety and depression.
A common denominator of changes in body weight, especially during a pandemic, is stress. Another survey conducted by the American Psychological Association in January 2021 found that about 84 percent of American adults have experienced at least one emotion associated with prolonged stress in the past two weeks.
Conclusions about unwanted weight changes make sense in a stressful world, especially in the context of the body’s response to stress, better known as a fight or flight reaction.
Fight, escape and food
The “fight or flight” reaction is an innate reaction that has developed as a survival mechanism. This allows people to respond quickly to acute stress – as a predator – or to adapt to chronic stress – such as food shortages.
Faced with stress, the body wants to keep the brain ready. This lowers the levels of certain hormones and chemicals in the brain to reduce behaviors that will not help in an emergency, as well as increases the levels of other hormones.
During stress, the body reduces the level of neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine and melatonin. Serotonin regulates emotions, appetite and digestion. Thus, low serotonin levels increase anxiety and can change a person’s eating habits.
Dopamine – another neurotransmitter that ensures well-being – regulates purposeful motivation. Decreased dopamine levels can lead to decreased motivation to exercise, maintain a healthy lifestyle or perform daily tasks.
When people experience stress, they also produce less of the sleep hormone melatonin, which leads to sleep problems.
Adrenaline and norepinephrine mediate physiological changes associated with stress and increase in stressful situations. These biochemical changes can cause mood swings, affect a person’s eating habits, reduce focused motivation and disrupt a person’s circadian rhythm.
In general, stress can disrupt your eating habits and motivation for exercise or healthy eating, and this past year has certainly been stressful for everyone.
Light calories, low motivation
In both studies, people reported their weight independently, and the researchers did not collect any information about physical activity. But it is safe to assume that most weight changes are due to weight gain or loss in humans.
So why have people gained or lost weight this past year? And what explains the dramatic differences?
Many people find comfort in high-calorie foods. This is because chocolate and other sweets can make you happy by increasing serotonin levels in the short term. However, the blood clears excess sugar very quickly, so the mental acceleration is extremely short-lived, forcing people to eat more.
Eating for comfort can be a natural response to stress, but combined with lower motivation to exercise and eating foods low in nutrients, high-calorie stress can lead to unwanted weight gain.
And what about weight loss? In a nutshell, the brain is connected to the intestines through a two-way communication system called the vagus nerve.
When you are under stress, your body inhibits the signals that pass through the vagus nerve and slows down the digestive process. When this happens, people feel full.
The pandemic left many people locked in their homes, bored, with enough food, and little distracted them. By adding a stress factor to this scenario, you have the perfect situation for unwanted weight changes.
Stress will always be a part of life, but there is something you can do – such as practice positive self-talk – that can help prevent reactions to stress and some of its side effects.
Lina Begdache, Associate Professor, Department of Nutrition, Binghamton University, New York State University.
This article was originally published by The Conversation. Read the original article.