What Caused Your Quarantine 15

Janet Tiberian Author
By Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES
June 16, 2022
What Caused Your Quarantine 15

As Covid-19 transitions from pandemic to endemic, it’s left another major public health issue in its wake -- significant weight gain. The U.S. was dealing with an obesity epidemic long before Covid hit. Between 2017 and 2018, about 42 percent of American adults were obese, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the pandemic has exacerbated the problem. 

Around 40 percent of American adults put on some weight during the first year of the pandemic. Experts believe stress, isolation and added responsibilities many people faced during the pandemic led to behavioral changes that created the perfect storm for weight gain, also known as the Quarantine 15. 

Although the name implies Americans gained an average of 15 pounds, experts think that number fluctuated. Around 27 percent gained less than 12.5 pounds and 10 percent gained more than that. A small percentage gained nearly 30 pounds. 

Results from the Health eHeart Study, conducted between February and June 2020, showed adults gained an average of 1.5 pounds per month after local and state shelter-in-place orders were implemented. And adults weren’t the only ones affected -- researchers also found obesity rates among children ages 5 through 11 years old jumped from 36 percent to 45 percent. 

Lifestyle behaviors are at the root of the obesity surge. Multiple studies have pointed to two main culprits: Alcohol consumption and poor eating choices. Many Americans had consumed extra calories by snacking, stress eating and drinking alcohol more often than they did pre-pandemic. 

Researchers with the US Department of Agriculture wanted a deeper understanding of changes in body mass index (BMI), obesity prevalence rates and obesity-related risk factors that emerged during the pandemic. They analyzed data from American adults aged 20 and older in the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) and concluded that alcohol consumption played the biggest role in higher obesity rates. 

Surprisingly, another factor also played a role in obesity increases: smoking cessation. 

As COVID rates increased, more Americans tried to quit smoking. Many smokers and vapers feared their habits would increase the severity of COVID illness. Nicotine in cigarettes suppresses appetite and increases metabolism. This means when people quit, they often put on some weight – usually 5 to 10 pounds. Most smokers lose that weight within the first year of quitting.

But the biggest culprit was alcohol consumption. Increased alcohol use makes weight management challenging. Alcoholic drinks can be high in calories, which means if you drink more without cutting overall calories, you’ll gain weight. But alcohol calories don’t have any nutritional value, which means swapping food for alcohol can lead to nutritional deficiencies. And if alcohol is combined with food, e.g., having a glass of wine with dinner, the nutrient uptake from the meal is diminished because alcohol interferes with the breakdown and absorption of certain nutrients. 

Alcohol also affects your blood sugar, nerve cells in the hypothalamus portion of the brain and levels of hormones that help suppress appetite, triggering hunger and cravings for carbohydrate-rich foods. Low-quality carbs (white flour products, deserts) are linked to weight gain. Alcohol use impairs judgement, and many studies link increased consumption of high-calorie foods to alcohol use. And some studies show that alcohol slows fat burning, also contributing to weight gain.

How much more did most adults drink during the pandemic? Dozens of studies have pointed to a large uptick in alcohol consumption – 14 percent during the pandemic. Another 17 percent of American adults reported heavy drinking days. A "heavy drinking day" was defined for women as four or more drinks containing alcohol, and for men as five or more drinks containing alcohol. Alcohol-related deaths were up 25 percent during the first year of the pandemic. 

“Studies are mixed regarding the benefits of alcohol for our health,” says Bernard Kaminetsky, MD, medical director, MDVIP. “However, if you’ve noticed an increase in your alcohol intake, talk to your primary care doctor.”

If you have questions about your diet or alcohol use, talk to your doctor. If you don’t have a primary care physician, consider partnering with an MDVIP-affiliated physician. They have time to really work with you and develop a wellness plan that can focus on weight management. Find a physician near you and begin your partnership in health » 

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About the Author
Janet Tiberian Author
Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES

Janet Tiberian is MDVIP's health educator. She has more than 25 years experience in chronic disease prevention and therapeutic exercise.

View All Posts By Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES
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