Losing weight gained during the COVID-19 pandemic

May 27, 2021

During the pandemic, did you find comfort in ice cream, potato chips and sugary drinks? You’re not alone. In doctor’s offices across Colorado, patients want to know how to lose weight gained during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Dr. Adam Kilkenney, a primary care physician.

man sits at a table eating salad.
Eating the right foods can help with the goal of losing weight gained during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: Getty Images.

Americans jokingly have referred to weight gained during the pandemic as “quarantine 15,’’ similar to the “freshman 15’’ that college students sometimes gain in their first year away from home. Kilkenney says some of the patients he sees at UCHealth Grandview Medical Center have gained anywhere from 10 pounds to 40 pounds since COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic in March 2020.

“A lot of it is that people have been at home. They’re less active, not getting out much, and they’re eating more, and eating mindlessly,’’ Kilkenney said.

Losing weight and Culinary Medicine

Kilkenney has an interest in a field called Culinary Medicine, the junction of nutrition, medicine and cooking. Culinary Medicine is a discipline of talking to patients about food and how to cook food.

Dr. Adam Kilkenney
Dr. Adam Kilkenney

“Patients who insist that they don’t like vegetables, I’ll talk to them about chopping, seasoning and roasting in a way that most people don’t normally prepare vegetables,’’ Kilkenney said. “Most people grew up with steamed this or that. It’s mushy and tasteless and that’s why they don’t like it. If you can make things taste better and much more appetizing, it can go a long way in giving people a little more ability to take care of themselves.’’

As more people become vaccinated and emerge from months of isolation in their homes, there’s a desire among many patients to schedule appointments with doctors like Kilkenney to learn how to shed the weight packed on during the past year.

Now that more Americans are returning to work and can no longer wear sweat pants on Zoom business calls, what does Kilkenney recommend people do to return to their pre-pandemic weight?

I’ve gained 20 pounds, what should I do?

The first thing to do is a reality check and try to figure out where you are with calorie balance. There’s debate about the simple idea of “eat less, move more.” It is often necessary, but it is not that simple.

Knowing where you are is a starting point. I don’t want people necessarily obsessing over calorie counting, but doing it for a week or two to get a reality check of what you’re actually eating can be a good start. It can be surprising sometimes and you find out you’re eating more than you think you are. If you’re not even close to being at a calorie deficit – that’s the first step.

For a couple of weeks, write it down. There are a number of apps for phones and websites where you can enter what you’re eating and it gives you an idea of how many calories you’re consuming. And on a lot of the apps, you can log your exercise and see how many calories you are burning above the baseline calories that you burn just being alive.

Getting that initial reality check of what you’re actually doing is helpful to start.

How does managing stress play a role in weight loss?

Stress tends to lead to higher cortisol levels. Cortisol sets our bodies up for storing fat around our organs, which is the most dangerous place for fat. In a world like this, we can’t avoid all stress so I say ‘try to manage stress as best as you can.’ Then work on your resilience to stress, your ability to bounce back from the day-to-day stresses rather than letting it become this chronic thing that weighs you down.

There are ways to do that: mindfulness, counseling and, for some people, just getting a break and getting some exercise is enough, depending upon the situation.

What foods should I eat?

The more whole foods the better, and having a variety of plants with a relatively high ratio of plants to animal products is ideal. If you’re eating whole foods, particularly a lot of plants, it’s going to be harder to overeat than if you’re eating a lot of processed and calorie-dense foods. That’s a starting point. I’m not so worried about the specific foods a person is eating if they’re eating mostly whole food.

What if a person can’t stop eating potato chips or give up certain foods?

They have to decide for themselves how important it is. Some people can do OK having a small amount, on a schedule, to avoid binging on more than they intended to eat. Some people need to avoid them all together. It boils down to an individual’s own mindset on how they can handle things.

How does consumption of alcohol contribute to weight gain?

The biggest thing is people who drink a lot tend not to eat well. There are calories in the alcohol itself, even if it is low-carb, and that can add up more quickly than you realize. If alcohol is a response to stress, then we’re going to have to address the stress. The biggest thing with alcohol is that it is more calories than you realize and then it can lead to other bad habits that contribute to weight gain.

How long should it take to lose 15 to 20 pounds?

A month to two months. Sometimes, you’ll see a big initial drop when you start changing your diet. A 15-to-20-pound weight loss over a month to two is pretty reasonable, and then you’ll usually see it slow down after that. In the long run, 1 pound per week is a good rate. Most people eventually reach a plateau, and even if they haven’t changed anything they may not continue to lose. I always encourage patients to stick with their habits, stick with their plan. Eventually, it will start progressing again. It can be hard and frustrating when you hit that plateau.

How much do I have to exercise?

Dr. Rebekah Zaluzec, a plastic and reconstructive surgery expert at UCHealth Cherry Creek Medical Center, has a philosophy of sustainable fitness. She has an undergrad degree in Kinesthesiology (which is in exercise science), and worked as a certified Pilates instructor prior to entering the field of medicine.

“I want my patients to find something that they enjoy. Losing weight is a challenge, and weight loss is not easy. We need to do it slowly and in a way that is sustainable for us. This could be 10 minutes of exercise in the morning and at night if we don’t have an hour or more to commit every day to exercising,” Zaluzec said. “Make sure not to overwhelm yourself, and implement small changes in diet/increase water consumption. These small changes will help slowly and safely lose weight.”

She said that consulting with a registered dietitian is helpful and can pinpoint what changes are needed.

“The idea here is sustainable bouts of fitness that you enjoy. Add in whatever you can, and you can always do something small. I am a big proponent of weight lifting for people of all varieties because an increase of lean muscle mass increases how many calories you burn throughout the day. This can give us the ability to eat foods without gaining weight as well as increase our functional abilities so that we are able to do the things we enjoy doing for longer into our lifetime,” she said.

Is there a recommended daily calorie intake?

That depends on a lot of factors: your sex, age, your starting weight, what your goal is, how much you want to lose, how quickly you want to lose, how active you are. So there are a number of calculators out there that can give you that. This 2,000-calorie-a-day thing, that’s just some average that someone decided upon at some point. An individual should really calculate their own numbers. Patients can look up basal metabolic rates online. There are a number of apps and website that can calculate that. Most men that are active, are going to be quite a bit higher than they expect. Women don’t burn as many calories with the same activities, so they might be a little bit lower than they expect. But it’s going to vary.

How does weight gain affect overall health?

Enough weight gain leads to obesity, which is a risk factor for heart disease, stroke, diabetes, certain cancers, Alzheimer’s and other diseases. There are arguments that center around, “Can you be obese and still be healthy?” I’ve certainly had patients with obesity who have no sign of other health problems. But are they still at-risk down the road?  Probably. There are also certain people who are healthy weight who have some of these health problems. Overall, weight gain eventually leads to obesity, which increases the risk for other health problems.

Can you share some tips about cooking?

Dr. Kilkenney often suggests that people who don’t like vegetables learn how to cook them differently to add more flavor and texture. Here’s his suggestion: Chop any mix of vegetables that appeals to you into similar size pieces. Toss with olive or avocado oil and season with salt and pepper or other spices.  Roast on a sheet pan at 400 to 425 degrees until the vegetables reach your desired doneness (usually about 20 minutes).  If you desire firmer vegetables, cook them in a shorter amount of time. Cook them longer, and they’ll start to brown and crisp up.

I like a mix of peppers, squash, zucchini and onions seasoned with salt, pepper, cumin, garlic and paprika. Toss with fresh cilantro and queso fresco.

What kind of oil do you use when cooking?

Do most of your cooking with olive oil or avocado oil.  If you still want the taste of butter, you can toss a much smaller amount in at the end.  In a lot of dishes, a splash of vinegar can really improve the taste.

Don’t be afraid to experiment with spices and herbs (smell them to see how you think they would fit in a dish), or substitute different vegetables in a recipe.

To schedule a primary care appointment with Dr. Kilkenney, click here.


About the author

Erin Emery is editor of UCHealth Today, a hub for medical news, inspiring patient stories and tips for healthy living. Erin spent years as a reporter for The Denver Post, Colorado Springs Gazette and Colorado Springs Sun. She was part of a team of Denver Post reporters who won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news reporting.

Erin joined UCHealth in 2008, and she is awed by the strength of patients and their stories.