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5 tips for losing those pandemic pounds

By Dr. Sharon Stills, NMD

Pandemic weight gain is real. In fact, nearly 50% of women in the US report gaining weight since 2020, packing on an average of 12.5 unwanted pounds. Some women report gaining twice that amount, or more.

woman trying to lose the pandemic pounds

If you’ve been trying to lose your own lockdown weight gain, you’ve probably already discovered how challenging this can be — despite all of your old diet tricks.

How can these pandemic pounds possibly be more stubborn than regular weight gain? There’s actually a very simple explanation.

It’s stress.

When you’re under chronic stress — and who hasn’t been over the past few years? — your body’s “fight or flight” response is triggered constantly, which causes hormonal changes that disrupt the way your body uses calories and stores fat. When you’re under constant stress, your body starts hanging onto every single calorie you consume — just in case you need that fuel to flee danger.

Our stress response is an ancient biological system that cannot tell the difference between the stress matrix of Covid and being chased by a tiger. Once the stress response is triggered, a cascade of hormones floods your bloodstream, regardless of the nature of the threat.

On top of this, your adrenal glands produce excess stress hormones, creating another hormonal imbalance. If your weight gain during the pandemic has shown up as added belly fat, it’s an almost sure sign that cortisol (the primary stress hormone) is being produced at higher than normal levels. Cortisol affects fat distribution by causing fat to be stored centrally around the organs in your midsection. This type of fat cell then emits signals that further impair your hormonal balance — a cascade of problems!

Now for the good news: — losing “stress weight” is possible. Here are 5 simple steps you can take to balance your stress response, recalibrate your hormones, and lose those stubborn pandemic pounds.

5 tips for shedding pandemic weight gain

Feed your body stress-fighting foods

Certain foods are excellent sources for nutrients that help to calm your body’s stress response and rebalance cortisol levels, removing these blocks to weight loss. Stress-fighting foods are also perfect for sustainable weight loss because they can form the basis of a low glycemic, whole foods-based diet — aka, a “no gimmick” diet that works! As you plan healthy meals and snacks, try to include these stress-fighting favorites:

  • Wild caught salmon provides protein to stabilize blood sugars and curb excess production of cortisol. Salmon also contains beneficial amounts of Omega 3s to help boost mood and emotional well-being, two key ingredients to keep you motivated on your weight loss journey.
  • Dark leafy greens provide magnesium, a vital mineral to support the adrenal glands in regulating cortisol and balancing other stress hormones. Try organic kale, spinach and mustard greens.
  • Vitamins C, E and B5 each play a starring role in supporting your body’s healthy stress response. For vitamin C, try oranges and apples, carrots, and red and orange peppers. Foods rich in vitamin E include avocados, almonds and asparagus. For vitamin B5, stock up on eggs, lentils and split peas.

Eat larger meals earlier in the day

Cortisol follows a natural cycle that corresponds to your circadian (sleep/wake) rhythm. Normally, cortisol is highest in the early morning and declines gradually throughout the day to help you get ready for sleep. Because eating always increases cortisol, it’s ideal to eat larger meals earlier in the day as a way to help cortisol fall back into its regular pattern. Intermittent fasting may be helpful for rebalancing cortisol. You can also try a high quality natural stress support supplement to help you relax into “rest and digest” mode later in the day, and bring cortisol back into balance.

Ditch the sugar and refined carbs

When your blood sugar spikes, so does cortisol production. To lose weight, you want to provide your body with foods that maintain healthy blood sugar balance — and that means getting rid of refined carbohydrates and all the foods that send your blood sugar on a roller coaster. When you’re stressed, it’s easy to turn to sugary foods and drinks, but these just add to the vicious cycle of stress weight gain.  Make note of foods that you might not normally consider “sweet”, including wine, sourdough bread, sauces, and smoothies with added sugars.

Try exercises that help you de-stress

Vigorous exercise can trip the body’s fight or flight response, creating a surge in stress hormone production. This is why engaging in high intensity exercise often doesn’t do much for weight loss when you’re under chronic stress; strenuous exercise can actually amplify a stress hormone imbalance and keep stress weight stuck in place.

Listen to your body. Do you feel better or worse after your daily workout? If exercise is leaving you wiped out instead of rejuvenated, start engaging in exercise that actively supports your stress response. Yoga is one of the most effective tools at our disposal because it’s a gentle, relaxing practice that helps to re-regulate out of control stress hormones — plus, it’s a good workout! Studies support yoga’s effectiveness for weight loss, so why not give it a try?

Find social connection

In case there was any doubt about the mind-body connection: research shows that feelings of loneliness are powerful enough to trigger increased cortisol production. Given this, it’s no wonder weight gain has been so common during the pandemic. This has been a lonely time for so many of us.

To end feelings of isolation, reach out to friends and family and see who else is ready to break out their pandemic rut. Post a message on Facebook that you would like to connect for daily wellness check-ins, and see where that leads.

It’s taken two years for your stress weight to appear, so give yourself time to help your body release it. Forget about crash dieting and quick weight loss. Unrealistic goals just put your body under more stress — and they rarely lead to lasting results.

The ultimate tip for pandemic weight loss? Feel gratitude for the body that has supported you throughout this difficult time. You can’t heal a body you hate, so focus on nourishing yourself with supportive body-positive affirmations, nutrient-dense food, gentle exercise, natural stress support, and mood-boosting social connections — actually in person if fully vaccinated and boosted!

You may be happily surprised by how quickly those stubborn pounds fall away when you simply start supporting your body’s natural balance.

orange asterisk Need help for weight gain related to perimenopause? Find new solutions in our article Demystifying perimenopausal weight gain.





Last Updated: March 3, 2023
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