There’s COVID-19. And there’s the COVID 19. Blame the sourdough bread craze, the pandemic cookie-baking obsession, stress, boredom, closed gyms, working from home and stretchy leggings and sweatpants that have made zippers, belts and buttons practically obsolete in what now passes for “professional” wardrobes.
Over the past year, physicians and dietitians have seen weight gain become an issue for existing and new patients. And they’re not surprised.
“Eating healthier and losing weight is always a hot topic, even when we’re not in a public health crisis,” says Laura Tolle, an independent registered dietitian nutritionist who works with Biltmore Medical Associates and the Biltmore Center for Medical Weight Loss. “But the last year has eliminated a lot of outlets and support for managing our health and weight.”
Dr. Gus Vickery, founder and practicing physician with Wild Health Asheville, could not agree more. “We have seen weight gain in patients,” he says. “They come in and know they’ve gained weight. It’s not always a lot, but it’s a creep that adds up.”
Vickery rapidly ticks off a list of the hows and whys behind the COVID 19: overeating, overdrinking, increased stress, decreased sleep, more confinement, less movement. It’s an equation, he explains, that adds up to weight gain and regression in overall health.
“Stress creates a kind of restless discomfort, and one of the easiest ways to address that is to go eat or drink something,” he says. “It brings immediate comfort at a time we are seeking comfort and pleasure.”
And just as easy as going from one cookie to two or three is stretching that one glass of wine a night to two or more, says Vickery. Alcohol, he points out, is not only high in calories but a major sleep disruptor, which is a known contributor to weight gain.
If Buncombe County alcohol sales are any indication, imbibers may be tossing and turning those extra pounds in bedrooms all over Asheville. According to Jason Thacker, operations manager for the Asheville ABC Board, while sales to restaurants and bars declined significantly last year, retail sales to the public averaged a 30%-40% increase since spring 2020.
Metro Wines general manager Zach Eidson says that though he can’t speculate on people’s pandemic drinking habits, he can address their buying habits. “Around the same time as the toilet paper panic buying and hoarding began, we started seeing the same thing with wine,” he recalls. “There was not an increase in the number of customers, but increased buying from our regular customers stocking up due to the unknown.”
Because ABC stores and wine stores were deemed “essential businesses,” they were permitted to stay open, but Metro Wines closed its Charlotte Street storefront to customers and moved to phone orders and curbside pickups. “We had to get three more phone lines to meet the demand,” he says with a laugh. “Instead of coming in and buying one or two bottles, people were calling in and building a case to pick up.”
Drinkers and teetotalers alike can attribute added pandemic poundage to increased time confined at home. “Being in our houses rather than an office or classroom, we’re just steps from the refrigerator or the cupboard, so it’s easy access,” Tolle points out.
Her advice to clients is to create what she calls a “nutrition environment.” People typically reach for the first thing they see, she says. “You don’t want a bag of chips staring at you. Put a bowl of oranges or apples on the table in plain sight,” she suggests. “In the fridge, the vegetable drawers should be where your treats go and put cut up celery sticks and carrots in baggies at eye level.”
Creating an optimal environment for healthy eating begins at the “grocery gateway,” she adds. So, if you know you won’t be able to resist plowing through a big bag of chips, don’t bring one into the house.
Kathy Whorley, a dietitian with her own practice in West Asheville, says clients are often in denial, not necessarily about the higher number on the scale but how it got there. “People come in and tell me they’ve gained 5 or 10 pounds in the last year and don’t know how it happened,” she says. “Once we go through some questions about their eating — and drinking — habits, it becomes pretty clear how it happened.”
Mindless eating, she says, has real consequences. “Working from home, being cooped up [with] no outside stimulation leads to boredom, and boredom frequently leads to eating just for something to do,” Whorley explains. “I tell my clients, the only thing they can have at their desk is water, and they have to take their meals at a table.”
She also reminds them that people should feel hunger every four to five hours, so if two hours after breakfast you find yourself searching the cupboard for a snack, that’s not hunger, it’s boredom or stress. “Walk around the house, around your yard or around your block instead,” she advises. “It will keep you from eating and bring oxygen to your brain.”
New year, new you
Vickery strongly recommends being mindful about moving. “I tell people when they get in that bored, restless, uncomfortable, stressed state, pause to recognize that your brain and body are looking for something to make you feel better, but you have choices,” he says.
He suggests consciously choosing to take five minutes for an intentional substitute, such as a short walk, yoga, light calisthenics, playing with a pet or breathwork. “Make sure it’s something you actually enjoy,” he says. “Don’t do pushups if you hate them.”
Eidson says Metro Wines has seen New Year’s resolutions and the popular practice of eschewing alcohol for a “dry January” affect sales since the start of the year. So has chef Dustin Orofino, founder of Asheville Pro Kitchen, a healthy prepared meal delivery service.
“Right after the new year we had our biggest jump in sales since we started this business four years ago,” he says. “It was the most orders we have ever had.” Every meal on the Pro Kitchen menu carries a nutritional breakdown of carbohydrates, fat, protein, sodium and, of course, calories, which is helpful for people keeping track.
Maintaining a healthy weight, says Vickery, is not easy, but it’s less complex than the process that leads to weight gain. “It’s really simple: Balance the equation by burning more calories than you’re taking in,” he says. “If you find yourself eating more, exercise more.”