Dr. Paul on pandemic weight gain and Freshman 15 flashbacks

I don’t know about you, but these COVID-19 times have reminded me of the Freshman 15, that extra weight students sometimes gain during the first year of college.

Starting in March, many of us have been scarfing down comfort food in vain attempts to find comfort. Homemade macaroni and cheese, delivery pizza after pizza, munching on potato chips while watching Netflix, slathering butter on homemade sourdough bread, and baking cookies, cakes and pies.

Sigh. A nice slice of pecan pie with vanilla ice cream does indeed make me feel better! But when I weighed in at my yearly physical, I experienced sticker shock — at almost 10 extra pounds this year.

Like too many Americans, I’m overweight, and I’m sure I didn’t need that extra 10 pounds. Pushing 70, I’m less vain than I’m concerned about my health, especially since I do have high blood pressure (albeit well-controlled).

I’m no stranger to diets, having grown up in an overweight family. I was raised on a dieting seesaw — we went on a family diet, lost weight, gained it back, started a new diet, lost weight and gained it back. Back in the late 1950s, diet pills were all the rage, until physicians realized that amphetamines were dangerous.

And like Mark Twain’s comment about smoking (“Quitting smoking is easy. I’ve stopped smoking a thousand times.”), I’ve lost and gained at least 500 pounds in the last 30 years. It’s not too hard to feel discouraged, and at times, defeated.

But I’m not one to give up.

The challenge is that aside from all of the physiological, genetic, cultural, nutritional and social reasons for obesity, eating habits develop at an early age and are very hard to change. Theories about weight gain and weight loss abound. And like many people who are overweight, I’ve read all the books and know all the answers, but still can’t pass the test to arrive at a healthy weight and stay there.

There’s no point in feeling bad about my checkered past of rollercoaster dieting. But it’s useful, when getting back on the healthy eating horse, to consider what I’ve learned from my long history of losing and gaining weight.

Here’s what I’ve learned about myself:

Keep a food diary. When I write down what I’ve eaten during the day, I’m more honest with myself about how much and what I eat. Like many people, I tend to eat more than I really need to, even if it’s a healthy food. Fortunately, there are many apps today where one can keep a log, tracking nutritional information and portion size.

Weigh-in weekly. Weighing myself weekly keeps me honest. I’m really good at lying to myself about my weight and avoid looking too carefully in the mirror. A scale keeps me honest.

Cultivate a long-term approach. I need to lose about 25 pounds, and I have learned from painful experience that quick fixes don’t work. It helps me to think of this endeavor as a yearlong journey, which I know will not be an easy trip. It will have ups and downs, with three steps forward and then two steps back before I arrive at my destination. Patience and perseverance are required.

Be mindful when eating. I’m prone to gobble down a meal, eating quickly. I’ve learned that slowing down, being more aware of taste and texture, and taking my time results in eating less and enjoying meals more.

Exercise more. Fortunately, I do have good exercise habits, but during COVID-19, I haven’t been able to go to my gym. Losing that regular trip to the health club has decreased my overall activity level. I’m still trying to figure out how to add more exercise to my daily routine.

So, if you are one of those adults like me who is overweight and have gained weight during the pandemic, reflect on what you’ve learned from your healthy eating journey. Apply that knowledge when you get started again.

Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at www.everettclinic.com/family-talk-blog.

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