Dealing with Unexpected Weight Fluctuations During and After COVID-19

February 17, 2024

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The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted nearly every aspect of daily life, including our health, habits, and even our weight. For many, stay-at-home orders, gym closures, and stress led to weight gain and struggles to get back on track. Meanwhile, others battled unexplained weight loss and appetite changes while ill or recovering.

Navigating these unanticipated body changes can be confusing and disheartening. This article covers common causes, seeking medical advice, and practical tips to return to your healthy weight after COVID-19.

Why Did I Gain Weight During the Pandemic?

Weight gain has been a common complaint since COVID-19 restrictions began. A survey found that over 60% of American adults reported undesired weight changes, with the average gain being 24-29 pounds.

There are a few key reasons why our bodies tend to hold onto extra weight during times of high stress and change:

  • Disrupted routines – Working remotely, temporary unemployment, homeschooling kids – our daily rhythms changed. This can throw off healthy eating and exercise habits.
  • Lack of activity – With gyms closed and more time at home, many saw their activity levels drastically drop. Sedentary lifestyles cause metabolic slowdown.
  • Emotional eating – Stress, boredom, and anxiety caused many to seek comfort in unhealthy foods. Meals became irregular due to constant snacking.
  • Poor sleep – Pandemic-related worries keeping Americans up at night. Lack of sleep is linked to weight gain because it alters hunger-regulating hormones.

While a moderate amount of “pandemic pudge” is understandable given the circumstances, it can impact health and quality of life significantly. Let’s explore strategies for shedding the extra baggage.

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Why Did I Lose Weight While Sick With COVID?

On the other side of spectrum, some deal with perplexing weight loss brought on by coronavirus infection itself.

Appetite changes and nutritional deficiencies often accompany illness, but emerging research suggests COVID-specific factors may also be at play, like:

  • Altered metabolic processes – Studies indicate SARS-CoV-2 may disrupt lipid and glucose metabolism in some patients.
  • Gastrointestinal symptoms – Digestive issues can reduce food intake and nutrient absorption.
  • Loss of taste/smell – An estimated 80% of COVID patients experience taste and olfactory dysfunction, muting flavor enjoyment.
  • Increased caloric demand – Fevers, inflammation, and immune response places extra energy needs on the body.

Unexplained weight loss warrants medical evaluation once the acute infection passes. Though some rebound quickly, long-haulers should take note if appetite and weight do not normalize weeks later.

When Unintentional Weight Loss is a Concern

Consult a doctor if you lose 5% or more of body weight without trying. Signs it requires assessment include:

  • Losing more than 5 lbs per week
  • No appetite or major change in eating habits
  • Failure to regain after illness recovery
  • Significant fatigue, weakness, or GI issues
  • Additional unexplained symptoms

Severe or prolonged weight loss can stem from thyroid dysfunction, diabetes, depression, heart conditions, digestive disorders and certain cancers. Doctors can run tests to diagnose biochemical causes as needed.

Managing Weight Changes After COVID Illness

Returning to your usual weight after coronavirus often requires a slow, stepwise approach tuned into your body’s cues.

Patience is key – demanding too much exercise and cutting calories drastically may backfire. Pace yourself incrementally to avoid burnout.

Exercise After Illness

  • Start with gentle activities like walking or yoga before intensifying activity. Going from 0 to 100 can trigger post-exertional symptoms.
  • Slowly ramp up duration and intensity week-to-week. Your stamina may be lower than expected.
  • Include a mix of cardio and resistance training to maximize calorie burn and maintain muscle.
  • Check oxygen levels during physical activity if recovering from moderate-severe COVID. Desaturation may occur indicating impaired lung function. Use supplemental oxygen if directed by your physician.

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Guidelines for Resuming Exercise Post-COVID:

  • Mild cases – Rest completely until fever-free for 24 hours without medication before starting light activity. Then increase step-by-step.
  • Moderate cases – No exercise for 2 weeks minimum, then begin short, gentle sessions with rest days between.
  • Severe cases – No exercise for at least 1 month, then start 5 minutes very light activity, increasing 5 minutes each week. Consult doctors regarding any activity restrictions.

Dietary Changes for Weight Loss

Nutrition optimization can accelerate healthy weight restoration post-COVID:

  • Eat regularly – Don’t skip meals to “make up for lost time.” This triggers rebound overeating later. Set meal/snack times.
  • Emphasize whole foods – Focus diet around veggies, fruits, whole grains, healthy fats and lean protein. These nourish without overloading calorie intake.
  • Stay hydrated – Drink ample water and non-sweetened beverages daily. Dehydration can manifest side effects mimicking hunger.
  • Listen to hunger/fullness cues – Avoid mindless eating by checking in with your body’s signals of genuine needs. Rate your hunger on a 1-10 scale before and after meals.
  • Manage stress – Unmanaged stress fuels poor dietary decisions. Make time for relaxing activities each day, especially before vulnerable times like dinner preparation. Deep breathing exercises help in the moment.
  • Consider supplements – Ask doctors about vitamin D, zinc, omega-3s, probiotics or protein powders to help stabilize appetite and nutrition status. These target common COVID-related deficiencies.

Tracking progress with a food and symptom journal reveals insights on personalized trigger points for overeating or appetite changes.

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Common Questions About COVID and Weight Changes

Navigating unexpected pounds gained and lost during the pandemic gives rise to many questions. Here are some frequent ones:

Why am I gaining weight when I’m eating less than normal?

This frustrating paradox typically stems from two COVID-related metabolic changes:

  • Slower BMR – Illness, inactivity during isolation and stress all suppress basal metabolic rate up to 15-20%. Your body now burns fewer calories at rest, so even reduced food intake exceeds daily needs.
  • Fat cell changes – Research indicates SARS-CoV-2 virus may modify proteins that help fat breakdown for energy use. Your body clings to fatty stores more stubbornly.

Be patient restarting activity levels and ensure you’re accurately tracking all calories consumed. Small discrepancies add up significantly.

Is the weight gain I notice after having COVID mainly water retention and bloating?

For some COVID long-haulers, new or persistent bloating and swelling lasting months is largely attributed to inflammation and fluid shifts. However, experts caution against assuming weight surges are just temporary water weight.

There are a few clues indicating if genuine fat gain is also occurring:

  • Clothing feels tighter and more snug all over, rather than just bloated abdominally
  • Persistent weight gain rather than fluctations
  • Measurable increases on the scale over weeks/months
  • Diets higher in salty, fatty and sugary foods in absence of normal taste
  • Noticeable loss of prior fitness level and muscle tone

Diuretics should never be used without medical oversight to address swelling concerns. Appropriate treatment depends on identifying the root cause.

Why have I lost my appetite since recovering from COVID?

Though many grapple with unrelenting hunger after coronavirus, others struggle to regain interest in food and quell unwanted weight loss instead. Common reasons include:

  • Metabolic effects – As mentioned, COVID may directly impact hormones signaling hunger and satiety for some time after infection.
  • Loss of taste/smell – Scent and flavor deprivation strips away appetite cues and enjoyment.
  • GI dysfunction – Stomach pain, nausea, diarrhea make eating unpleasant. These issues resolve gradually for most long-COVID patients.
  • Fatigue/Depression – Profound exhaustion and/or mood disorders strongly suppress desire to eat. Addressing these underlying problems helps appetite normalize later on.

Don’t force food while appetite is diminished. Focus on nutrient density through supplements and smoothies until hunger returns.

I’m fully recovered – why am I still gaining weight weeks later?

A post-viral prolonged stress response offers one explanation for ongoing weight gain after COVID symptoms fade.

Your body may remain on high alert with elevated cortisol even when infection clears. These fight-or-flight hormones tell the body to conserve and store fat, while seeking quick energy from carbs and sugar.

Prioritizing stress relief through sufficient sleep, meditation, therapy, or medication and engaging parasympathetic “rest and digest” response can help reverse this. Weight should stabilize when the stress system resets.

Are my medication causing me to gain weight after COVID?

Some prescription drugs used to treat COVID complications can increase appetite, reduce activity levels, or alter metabolism processes that predispose weight gain:

  • Corticosteroids – Powerful anti-inflammatories like dexamethasone, prescribed for severe lung involvement and cytokine storm, are notorious for stimulating hunger and central fat storage.
  • Anti-virals – Though rare, remdesivir and molnupiravir may lists weight gain as a side effect for a small percentage.
  • Anticoagulants – Blood thinners like heparin and enoxaparin can rarely cause fluid retention leading to measurable poundage.

If weight gain coincides with new medications, discuss alternatives or lowered dosages with prescribing doctors, rather than simply stopping.

In Conclusion: Be Patient Yet Proactive

For those grappling with unexpected weight fluctuations amidst COVID-19 diagnosis and recovery: be patient yet proactive.

Allow body and mind adequate rest and self-care first and foremost. Then gradually work diet and lifestyle back towards balanced wellness using caution not to overexert depleted reserves.

Monitor appetite patterns, fatigue levels, and weight data points consistently rather than reacting day-to-day. This bigger picture view shows whether additional medical or therapeutic intervention becomes necessary should changes fail to resolve naturally overtime.

Finally, approach the journey compassionately – progress transpiring even subtly is still worthy of celebration. consistent positive momentum compounds gradually into great transformation.

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