Throughout the pandemic, I've heard similar stories from clients, friends, and family members: So many of them had slipped into patterns of overeating and excess drinking that lasted for months. And at the same time, as gyms closed and people were encouraged to stay at home, many of them stopped being physically active. Of course, this scenario wasn't isolated to just people I know—it played out across the country.
Losing-Weight-Gained-During-The-Pandemic-GettyImages-1274753454 showed that 47% of US adults have eaten more food during the pandemic than they otherwise usually would. And a poll from the American Psychological Association (APA) found that 23% of adults reported drinking more alcohol to cope with stress during the pandemic. As for exercise, a 2021 study published in BMC Public Health concluded that levels of physical activity were significantly lower during social distancing than they were before the pandemic.
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It's been an unprecedented year. And for many Americans, one result was weight gain. According to the APA poll, 61% of adults reported experiencing undesired weight changes since the start of the pandemic. Over 40% of people gained more weight than they intended, and of this group, the average weight gain was 29 pounds.
If you're among those who put on some pandemic padding, and you're looking for a solution, here's my plea: Please don't adopt a drastic diet or engage in negative self-talk. Chances are you've been down that road before. And if you're like my clients, you've probably found that an overly restrictive approach can leave you feeling miserable. Most likely the diet will quickly fizzle out, which results in gaining back all (or more) of the weight lost.
Losing weight in a safe, sustainable way doesn't require an extreme overhaul. And after the year we've all been through, it's more important than ever to embrace weight loss methods that simultaneously support your health. Each of the nine strategies I've included below can lead to weight loss and improved wellness. And more importantly, they're habits you can stick with, especially if your stress levels start to return to normal.
Begin by selecting one or two of these recommendations to focus on at a time. Once each change feels like a natural part of your routine, take on another, then another. This step-by-step approach is designed to help ease you back into pre-pandemic habits, or foster an even healthier lifestyle.
Add more veggies to your plate
Vegetables are loaded with vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants, and other protective bioactive compounds. They're also filling and low in calories. Yet data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that just 9% of Americans eat the minimum recommended two to three cups of veggies daily.
Simply incorporating more veggies into each meal may displace other higher-calorie foods. The fiber and fluid in veggies is also filling, so you stay fuller longer. That's especially true compared to refined carbs foods, which might make you feel good at first, but then worse later.
Another approach is to purposefully replace part of your carb portion with veggies—not to eliminate them, but to reduce excess. For example, instead of one cup of cooked brown rice, have a half cup mixed with one cup of chopped greens or riced cauliflower. Rather than one cup of cooked oatmeal, have a half cup mixed with a generous scoop of shredded raw zucchini. Your food volume goes up, while calories and carbs go down. Remember, the goal isn't to completely eliminate carbs—doing that can zap your energy and lead to cravings—but to create more balance.
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Eat on a regular schedule
If you've been eating at erratic times or you tend to graze all day, establishing a regular eating routine can provide several benefits. One advantage is appetite regulation. Choose specific meal times, spaced evenly apart, such as breakfast at 8 a.m., lunch at noon, a snack around 3 p.m., and dinner at 6 p.m. If needed, set your cell phone alarms as reminders. After about a week, your body adjusts to the pattern, which typically results in becoming hungry at expected meal times.
This may help you better tune in to actual hunger cues, and it can improve your ability to distinguish between true hunger and the desire to eat. The latter may be triggered by boredom, habit, or stress. This single change can lead to eating considerably less, again, without going on a diet. A consistent eating pattern also results in better blood sugar and insulin control; steady, even energy throughout the day (versus spikes and crashes); and improved digestive health.
Swap processed foods for whole foods
I'm sure you're aware that whole foods are more nutritious. But there's another benefit: Research has shown that replacing processed food with fresh whole food can increase calorie burning by as much as 50%. Whole foods can also be much more filling. Try to systematically swap processed foods for fresh alternatives. For example, trade a bagel or muffin for oats topped with fruit and nuts, opt for a whole grain bowl instead of a sandwich or wrap, and replace spaghetti with spaghetti squash. As a snack, swap chips or cookies with fresh veggies and hummus, or fruit with nuts or nut butter. In addition to the metabolism-revving perk, you'll take in a broader spectrum of nutrients and antioxidants.
Up your fiber intake
Naturally fiber-rich foods are filling. They also support good digestive health and feed beneficial gut bacteria that are tied to immune function and anti-inflammation. But eating more fiber also has proven weight loss benefits. A 2019 study published in The Journal of Nutrition found that dietary fiber intake—independent of macronutrient and caloric intake—promotes weight loss in adults who are overweight or obese and who consume a calorie-limited diet. A classic study from the same journal found that fiber binds to some of the calories we eat, which prevents the calories from being absorbed (in other words, fewer net calories).
Just 5% of Americans hit the recommended daily target for fiber. In addition to veggies and fruits, top sources include pulses (the umbrella term for beans, lentils, peas, and chickpeas), whole grains, nuts, and seeds. Aim for a few fiber-rich foods in each meal, and be sure to drink plenty of water to help your digestive system adjust to a higher fiber intake.
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Eat more plant-based meals
By all accounts, we're eating more plant-based foods now than ever before. According to a 2020 report released by the Plant Based Foods Association, sales of plant-based foods spiked by 90% during the pandemic. That's good news for the environment, but eating more vegan meals may be a savvy weight loss tactic, too. A study published in the journal Nutrition compared five diets: vegan, vegetarian, omnivore, semi-vegetarian, and pescatarian. At the six-month mark, the vegan eaters lost significantly more weight than those following the other diets.
No need to go fully vegan if you're not interested. Just be sure to choose whole, plant-based foods rather than foods like processed vegan pepperoni pizza or vegan faux fried chicken and French fries. Great options include smoothies made with veggies, fruit, plant protein, and nut butter; grain bowls made with greens and veggies, topped with lentils, quinoa, and tahini; and Southwest platters loaded with veggies and salsa, paired with black beans, roasted corn, and avocado.
Drink more water
You've probably heard this one before, but it's tried and true: Drinking water has many health benefits. Water is needed for every process in the body, including healthy circulation, digestion, and waste elimination. Studies show that water does indeed help boost metabolism; and while the effect may be slight, it can snowball to create a greater impact over time. Drinking water before meals has also been shown to naturally reduce meal portions, which may help prevent overeating. Making water a priority can also squeeze out less healthy drinks, including those with sugar or artificial sweeteners.
According to the Institute of Medicine (IOM), women need 2.7 liters of total fluid per day (over 11 cups), and men need 3.7 liters (over 15 cups). About 20% of your fluids come from food, but that still leaves 8-12 cups based on the IOM's guidelines, not including additional needs due to exercise. As a minimum, I recommend eight cups a day. Think of your day in four blocks: 1) from the time you wake up to mid-morning; 2) mid-morning to lunch time; 3) lunch time to mid-afternoon; and 4) mid-afternoon to dinner time. Aim for two cups (16 ounces) of water during each of these blocks. And if you're not a fan of plain water, spruce it up with healthful add-ins, like lemon, lime, fresh mint, sliced cucumber, fresh ginger, or slightly mashed bits of seasonal fruit.
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Curb alcohol consumption
Alcoholic drinks can be pretty caloric themselves, but on top of that, alcohol tends to lower inhibitions and stimulate appetite, so you may wind up overeating or eating foods you wouldn't touch sober. If you've been drinking wine with dinner most nights during the pandemic or participating in more Zoom happy hours, cutting back can immediately slash your calorie intake and curb your appetite. In my practice, I've seen this one change alone result in a five-pound weight loss within a few weeks.
If you're not interested in going cold turkey, commit to a specific strategy. For example, nix alcohol Monday-Friday or Sunday-Thursday. Or cut back to one drink max per day. Choosing lower calorie alcoholic beverages may also help. Think: spiked seltzer; dry wines, such as Cabernet; ultra low-carb beer; and distilled sprits mixed with sparkling water, garnished with citrus and herbs, in place of mixer, soda, or juice.
Eat more mindfully
Eating more mindfully can help you tune in to your body's hunger and fullness cues, boost the enjoyment of eating, and eat fewer calories without trying. In fact, a 2019 meta-analysis and systematic review published in Obesity Reviews found that mindful eating reduces body mass index and waist measurements similarly to common diet programs. And being more mindful with food can carry over into other areas of your day, to help reduce stress and improve relationships.
If you're new to the concept, there are two ways to start. First, try to eat at least one meal a day without multitasking, so no phone, computer, etc. It may feel odd to eat without doing anything else, but this practice can significantly change the eating experience, including slowing you down. Also, take just five minutes a day to listen to a guided meditation, preferably before you eat. Download a free app or search YouTube to find a mindfulness meditation that works for you. Mindfulness can transform what, how often, and how much you eat, and help you feel revived, not deprived.
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Increase your activity
Weight loss results really do boil down to 80% nutrition and 20% exercise. For example, it's much easier to eat 300 surplus calories (6-7 mini peanut butter cups) than it is to burn an extra 300 (50-minute hike). But, the two go hand-in-hand for several reasons. In addition to upping your calorie output, being active can help reduce stress, elevate energy and mood, improve sleep, and build metabolism-supporting muscle. And research shows that exercise may naturally prompt you to make healthier food choices. Choose workouts you look forward to and that feel fun, and ask friends to join you. Exercise that feels like work—or worse, penance—can wreak havoc with mental health, and you may start finding reasons to avoid it.
Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health's contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and a private practice performance nutritionist who has consulted for five professional sports teams.
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