As people emerge from isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many are taking a fresh look at the eating habits they’ve maintained during the past year and a half. Some people actually improved their diet during this time while others gained the now-notorious “quarantine 15.”
Whatever your current situation, it’s not too late to adopt some of the good lockdown habits that can help you lose weight. Other eating patterns born of the pandemic — the ones that led to weight gain — can derail your healthy eating habits long-term if you don’t deal with them now. Monica Reinagel, LDN, a clinical nurse specialist, licensed nutritionist, and host of the Change Academy podcast, offers expert advice on the dietary habits you want to take into the future and which ones are better off left behind.
1. Having Breakfast
Many office workers transitioned to work-from-home arrangements during the pandemic, freeing them from morning commutes. And if you’ve ever had a schedule that requires you to race through school drop-off and fight traffic in order to get to your desk on time, you know that breakfast is often the first thing that gets cut from a morning routine. “People often give ‘ran out of time’ as an excuse for not eating breakfast,” says Reinagel.
Without that hectic morning commute, some people spent that time improving their self-care with simple steps like eating breakfast. And that can help with weight loss. A study published in June 2021 in the journal the Proceedings of the Nutrition Society found that those who didn’t eat a morning meal were more likely to eat more added sugars, carbohydrates, and total fat over the course of the day. “There are certain things you want in a healthy diet, such as fiber, that are often front-loaded for the day at breakfast,” says Reinagel.
2. Homemade Lunch
When offices closed because of the pandemic, many were suddenly forced to go without takeout lunch specials — a survey by market research firm Acosta found that 31 percent of people were eating lunch at home every day, compared with just 18 percent pre-COVID — and that may have been a blessing in disguise. When researchers assessed the nutritional quality of meals eaten at full-service or fast food restaurants using data from 35,000 Americans between 2003 ands 2016, they found that less than 0.1 percent were of ideal quality, based on the American Heart Association 2020 diet score, according to a study published in April 2020 in the Journal of Nutrition. As people are increasingly called back to their workplaces, packing those lunches for the office can help keep weight in check.
3. Skipping Restaurants
Between full-on closures and capacity restrictions at restaurants, many people have found themselves eating out far less frequently than they used to. From a weight perspective, this is an unambiguously positive thing. A study published in January 2016 in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that 92 percent of restaurants deliver way more calories than you need on any single eating occasion.
4. Weighing Yourself
A tight waistband can signal that you’re gaining weight if you’re wearing fitted clothes to work every day. But what about when you live in sweats, as many people did during the pandemic? That’s when you need to check in with the bathroom scale. According to research published in February 2015 in Obesity, weighing yourself more often has been consistently associated with better weight outcomes. It’s a good idea to keep it up even when you go back to pants with zippers.
5. Eating Whole Grains and Beans
Early in the pandemic, people stocked up on shelf-stable ingredients that could help minimize trips to the grocery store, like dried beans and whole grains. These also just happen to be some of the healthiest foods out there. “Eating these foods more often has gut health benefits. People who eat a lot of these are more likely to have a healthy weight,” says Reinagel.
A study published in July 2021 in The Journal of Nutrition found that people who eat three servings of whole grains a day had smaller increases in waist size than people who eat little or no whole grains. Now that you may be shopping more often, it’s still smart to keep these staples on your list.
6. Cooking More
If you spent any time on social media during the pandemic, you probably saw many more home-cooked dishes in your feed than ever. “People were forced to rediscover their capacity to prepare meals day after day and many rediscovered their enthusiasm for it,” says Reinagel. With few options for outside-the-home entertainment and restaurants often off-limits, families turned to their home kitchens for fun and as well as for food.
Habits That Can Derail You
1. Grazing and Snacking
“For many of the people I work with, working in or next to the kitchen was hard,” says Reinagel. For those suddenly working from home, normal meal time sometimes devolved into an all-day buffet. It’s easy to grab a handful of this or a bite of that every time you enter your home kitchen. Reinagel also notes that in the absence of social constraints (not wanting to eat a family-size bag of chips for lunch in front of a coworker, for example). People were unselfconscious about their snacking habits.
2. Emotional Eating
The pandemic brought an unprecedented amount of stress and uncertainty into people’s lives. If you coped by eating your feelings, you are not alone. “Food was a constant stress relief valve for boredom and screen burnout,” says Reinagel.
And research suggests that emotional eaters are 13.38 percent more likely to be overweight or obese than people who don’t use food as a coping tool. Learning different ways to manage stress and process strong emotions can help you leave an emotional eating pattern behind.
3. Buying Treats in Bulk
In the early weeks of lockdown, panicked shoppers cleaned out supermarket shelves. “If you played your cards right, you didn’t set yourself up to fail by buying big tubs of flavored popcorns and the giant barrel of cheese balls,” says Reinagel. The reality is, many people did exactly that. If you’re still stockpiling Oreos by the thousands at a buying club, it might be time to reassess your shopping habits.
4. Delivery App Abuse
During 2020, there was a major increase in food delivery app use. The top four companies experienced a collective $3 billion increase in revenue, reported MarketWatch. A study published in February 2020 in Frontiers in Nutrition shed some light on just what people are eating when they get dinner delivered via these apps. Most frequently ordered dishes include cheeseburgers, pizzas, nachos, cheesecake, and baby back ribs — classic calorie bombs very likely to derail any weight loss efforts.
5. Overdoing Alcohol
A study published in December 2020 in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Publish Health found that 60.1 percent of people 21 and older who were surveyed said they were drinking more alcohol than they were before the pandemic. “People tend to undercount the number of calories that alcohol contributes to your diet,” says Reinagel. “You can easily be increasing your daily calorie intake by 30 to 40 percent.” Another problem according to Reinagel? These calories contribute no satiety, the feeling of fullness and satisfaction you get from food.