Many kids who go off to college face the “freshman 15,” a nickname given to weight gain due to a high-carbohydrate diet consisting of unlimited empty calories. Most quickly lose the weight and adapt to their new reality. This phenomenon probably won’t occur to the same degree this year, as so many dorms are closing because of the coronavirus.
But now there’s a different, more ominous problem that affects Americans of all ages: the Quarantine 15.
As a cardiologist, I pay a lot of attention to supporting patients in controlling their weight. I have seen many patients put on a tremendous amount of weight since the pandemic began. The cause: not the life-threatening infection, but eating too much of the wrong food and not exercising. At the same time, stress and fear are affecting mood, depression, and sleep patterns, all triggers for weight gain.
This weight gain is often accompanied by good excuses. “The gym has been closed,” “it’s been too hot to walk,” “my only pleasure has been sweets” are three of the top reasons I have heard.
For cardiac patients, overeating and weight gain leading to poorly controlled diabetes can be deadly, and sedentary behavior worsens everything. Overweight people are far more likely to have complications from COVID-19.
Even though many older people or those with preexisting medical conditions may still be reluctant to leave the house for a walk, I’m finding that most people still want to see their doctor in person. I have fewer telehealth visits now than a few months ago. People want to be examined, and have their blood pressure and EKG checked.
But whether I see patients in person or via telehealth, the themes of weight gain and inactivity are so common that I find myself dispensing the same advice time and again. Here is what I’m telling my patients; I hope it can help you as well.
Cut the comfort carbs. This includes simple carbohydrates, like bread, pasta, rice, cake, doughnuts and sugar-laden sodas. Whatever comfort they give you will not feel so great if you’re piling on pounds. Even if you have gained five pounds, this is still too much.
Walk as much as possible. Even going up and down stairs can help. If you cannot walk because of back or knee pain, lifting light weights with your arms is better than nothing.
Eat as many fruits and vegetables as possible. They are low in calories and contain important fiber to help keep you full and your system working properly. And don’t skimp on water.
If you have diabetes, speak to your doctor about the class of medications called SGLZ2 inhibitors, which include Jardiance, Invokana, and Farxiga. These have been shown to help the heart while assisting with weight loss. They are not meant for people with diabetes who take insulin.
Another class of diabetes medication, called glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1) receptor agonists, also can help promote weight loss. They work, in part, by slowing the movement of food through the stomach and require weekly injections. Victoza, Trulicity, and Byetta are examples.
Get outside. Being in the house all day is not good for mental or physical health. Go for a walk daily, even for 10 minutes at a time, wearing your mask if possible. Don’t be like many of my patients who have left the house only to go to a doctor’s visit.
Watch your alcohol consumption. The calories alone will promote weight gain, and often alcohol makes you want to eat more.
Become part of a small group of friends or relatives who share your social distancing practices. Become more active together.
If you can’t be active with your friends, meet them for a picnic. Pick up food from a take-out place or prepare your own. Go to a public park for a safe and social lunch or dinner.
If you are feeling depressed, let your doctor know or talk to a mental health professional.
David Becker is a frequent Inquirer contributor and a board-certified cardiologist with Chestnut Hill Temple Cardiology in Flourtown. He has been in practice for more than 25 years.