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COVID-Curves: The obsession with pandemic weight gain in UAE

Gulf News logo Gulf News 15/07/2020 Gulf News Report
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Dubai: Over the last three months, Google searches for ‘comfort food recipes’ were trending on the internet. Banana bread, cinnamon rolls, sourdough bread, homemade pizza, mac n cheese, fried chicken… I can go on.

COVID-19 has taken us all out of our comfort zone. Whether it’s the fear of the unknown, concern about loved ones, loneliness and disrupted routines, the truth of the matter is that we have been stressed. And stress is no good. In fact, research shows that stress alters overall food intake, resulting in either under- or overeating.

Some people stayed home. They cooked, they baked and they ate as a way to feel in control during times that were completely out of our control. While others dealt with their stress in a different way. Cutting down on food and working out as a means to combat the negative feelings.

Which camp do you belong to?

The Overeaters

Stress + Work From Home = More trips to the kitchen

Basically, we went from constantly being on the move, to sitting at home all day long for at least three months. We used to move a lot before the pandemic. Just the simple act of getting out of the house, taking a car or public transport was sufficient enough to give us a couple of thousand steps a day.

Why is it SO easy to gain weight?
Because it’s an adaptive evolutionary response that we inherited from our ancestors who lived in times where food was less available. Back then, if your body stored food, you were more likely to survive and reproduce. The skinny ones never made it. Food gives you energy, so why the heck wouldn’t your body react so positively to eating? It is rewarding and releases happy hormones to your brain. However, here’s a reality check: Despite being efficient storers of fat, humans thousands of years ago, were never obese, as they had to work hard to eat and in the process burned up all the calories they ate. Do we even work hard for anything these days? Not so much.

Some were often going to the gym after work, taking a class or meeting friends. All kinds of possibilities to get you moving. Additionally, if you lived ‘the Dubai life’ of go-go-go, you probably had no time to sit and do nothing. Being a couch potato just wasn’t an option. But throughout quarantine, the couch was probably THE place to be.

Let’s hear from some of the weight gainers

I dodged the scale for 3 months and accidentally gained 10 kg

-Seyyed Llata, Senior Designer

There were signs; When I accidentally ripped one of my favourite t-shirts in a comical attempt to take it off. I knew I was in trouble, yet, I refused to acknowledge that I gained a significant amount of weight.

Like a person in debt, who avoids looking at bank statements, I too dodged the scale. At every trip to the supermarket, I purposely "forgot" to bring coins, so I wouldn’t be able to weigh myself at those machines at the market that the public can use to weigh themselves.

But last week my eldest son "unexpectedly" produced one dirham (the nerve!) and pushed me onto the scale: 104 kg. He fired a loud and long “OHHH”

I was 10 kg above my usual weight.

My usual weight is 93kg give or take. Honestly, I didn’t want to know my weight because I didn’t want to have to do something about it. I love food. I love food on so many levels.

Cooking is my favourite activity in life, I consider it an art, a performance, a cultural code, but above all, an expression of love for your friends and family. Pre-COVID-19, I had limited time and energy as I have to commute at least two and a half hours every weekday, leaving me only the weekends to pamper my sons with lavishing dishes.

During the quarantine, as we could not go out, I would gather the boys for breakfast, lunch, and dinner (and some snacks) where the possibilities are infinite. From Mexican to Japanese, often to Italian, Filipino, and some times Indian, Pakistani, Chinese, pan-Asian, and legendary meat fests.

I never had the chance to cook that much and have so many meals with my family, I don't plan to stop cooking for them any time soon, family time is so precious, and kids grow very fast, but I guess there will be no more taco Tuesday for me in a while.

I gained, then lost, then gained, then lost again

-Yousra Zaki, Senior Features Editor

The first three weeks of self-isolation and working from home was a novelty. I spent a lot of time in the kitchen, testing out new recipes; think banana bread, cinnamon rolls and lots and lots of cheese on my food. I indulged. As soon as I noticed the weight gain, three kilos to be exact, I started to control the situation. Daily workouts in my room, daily checks in the mirror to make sure that nothing was expanding and intermittent fasting to control my food intake.

As a weight loss attempt, this strategy didn’t actually work. The silver lining was, I didn't gain any more weight, but the strict routine wasn’t helping me lose weight either. The reality is, everything about my life and my routine has changed, so the fact that my body was changing too shouldn’t have been a surprise. But I am a bit dramatic, so I made a big deal out of the situation over the phone with my friends. We made a pact to shed all the extra weight when Ramadan came along.

Come, Ramadan, I was more strict than I had EVER been. No dessert and low carb. Slightly dangerous for someone who was fasting but I just had to see change. I lose three kilos that month and I was feeling great. Smug, in fact. I thought of all the people stuck at home gaining weight and I would be the odd one out.

And then restrictions began to ease. Malls were slowly becoming more accessible and restaurants had opened. I started going out to eat again. All my quarantine weight loss was ruined. I gained it all back and then some. I was heavier than ever before.

Two weeks ago, I decided to achieve my goals once and for all, I signed up with a nutritionist who monitors my weight and gives me advice on what to eat. I am not on any crash diet and I eat well. It’s been going great and all my weight finally began to drop again.

Coronavirus ruined my fitness routine

-Shyam A. Krishna, Senior Associate Editor

I stepped on the scale with a bit of trepidation. Not without reason. I haven’t been on my best behaviour. Working from home hasn’t helped.

True enough, the needle raced past my optimum weight. That’s an extra 5kg, I sighed. It’s going to take a while to work that off.

Working from home has been convenient. Especially in the time of coronavirus. But three months of remaining cooped up at home have had a drastic effect on my girth. The weight gain is a worry. Not that I’m conscious of my weight, but because I tend to pile the pounds quickly.

A lot of that can be blamed on medications for illnesses in the past. They include steroids. And these drugs played havoc on my waist and weight. Which is why I’m so keen to prevent my stomach from ballooning.

I’m not a fitness freak. Gyms are not my thing. I find workouts boring and monotonous. I lose interest easily. I would rather go swimming.

So how do I keep fit? I lead an active lifestyle and watch what I eat. That helps me retain an optimum weight. A weight that wouldn’t unduly stress my creaky knees.

My fitness routine centres around playing sport. I play tennis and badminton whenever possible. But brisk walks around the park is the cornerstone of my daily fitness regime that occasionally includes a bit of yoga.

This routine is critical, given my weakness for good food. But portion control helps. And salad lunches give some elbow room to nibble on sweets. So occasional indulgences have not been a problem.

COVID-19 closed down schools, so badminton suffered. Park closures meant that tennis courts were out of bounds. Three months of working from home threw my daily schedule out of kilter.

When you work from home, there no beginning and end. And that had an impact on my morning walks. The frequency suffered. The occasional bout of illness added to the woes.

Then there’s the food trap. At home, snacks are easily accessible. Any break from work would mean a trip to the kitchen. Biscuits, cakes, fruits and nuts make a beeline for the stomach. Yes, I admit. I’ve got a sweet tooth. But the sugar rush keeps you going. No deadline is too stiff if there’s a steady stream of snacks and coffee.

Well, all that came at a cost. The weight gain, that’s the price of indulgence.

The coronavirus is still around. But I’m back on my feet. Majaz Park, here I come. 6km in an hour every day, that should do it. Where are my sneakers?

The biggest losers

Who are actually the winners... The ones who used their time in self-isolation wisely. The ones who knew they wouldn’t be eating out and that this was the perfect opportunity to eat well without the temptation of a social life, ruining all of their efforts.

Although the majority of the population went on to gain weight over the last three month, some people really took advantage of this opportunity and cut the bad foods out and improved their lives.

Cutting carbs always makes me feel better

By Dona Cherian, Senior News Editor

The lockdown and the work-from-home situation, when it started, didn’t seem like it would be for a long. It seemed unnatural for it to continue beyond a few weeks, at most a month, I thought. After a slow month passed and news of the pandemic got worse, I realised that the staying home 24/7 wasn’t doing me any health favours and the end of it could be indefinite.

My normally dormant gluten sensitivity had worsened with the constant intake of delicious Kerala food that my mom-in-law would serve up every day. Let me paint you a picture – I ate rice in different forms for all my meals and snacks. Appams, brown rice, dosas, idiyappams, kozukkata, rice flakes; the list goes on. It didn’t help that I never had to go far for a snack or endless cups of tea or coffee.

One day, over a month in, I was bent over in pain and my husband had to literally fold me and carry me to ensure a painless commute to the couch. My sensitivity to some forms of gluten had flared up again, and I had gained a few kilos as well. That was the day I decided to go back to a ketogenic meal plan.

The Keto diet, a high-fat diet with less than 5 per cent of your daily calories from carbs, had worked for me in 2018. I lost 13 kilos at the time. The diet forces your body to start burning fat for fuel rather than carbs.

Two months in, I have lost over 6 kilos and feel better than I have felt in months. Keto, for me personally, has always brought on mental clarity and physical comfort.

While I resent the fact that I have to avoid my favourite Kerala dishes, I have successfully cooked healthy and stuck to the diet without the office’s snack distractions. I hope to able to continue this meal style successfully when I head back to work next week.

I lost 10kg without really trying

By Sara Shurafa, Senior News Editor

I have struggled with my weight loss for so long now, after two pregnancies I found myself 25 kilos above my desired weight. And I have tried to jump on the diet/work out bandwagon for so long. But I failed miserably time after time, not because I lack the discipline but because life takes you to different places every day and you find yourself falling off the wagon or the wagon just starts steering you in a different direction.

I started this year with a decision to lose at least 10 kilos in 2020 but this time no diets, I stopped believing in diets. So on January 3, I started adjusting my food portions (minimize my portions by half), control my hunger pangs and limit my dessert to once a week rather than the daily after lunch sugary treat.

Then COVID-19 came, and I realized that staying at home meant eating more homemade food rather than ordering delivery every day as I did in the office. At home, I was moving more around the house between my desk, kitchen, and children rather than spend 9 hours straight behind the desk at the office. The lack of office feasts and ongoing snacking made a big difference to the number son the scale.

Also, house confinement meant no travelling, my biggest routine breaker. The major weight gain came from trips, every trip I took, didn’t just mean a diet is broken, but also it meant I would gain two to three kilo. That’s just how my body reacts to routine changes.

Another major catalyst was not eating dinners out. This means no four-course dinners with my hubby or late-night deserts with my friends. At the moment, dinner is off the schedule for me now.

Without even knowing I was shedding the weight with little lifestyle changes because of COVID-19 confinement, and from January to July, I lost 13 kilos.

How to avoid over-eating?

Gulf News speaks to Farah Hillou, a licensed nutritionist, registered dietician and a certified practitioner of functional nutrition.

Farah Hillou

1. Focus on the actual reason why we resort to over-eating and then find alternative ways to cope. Proven methods that can help include journaling and meditation. Alternatively, resort to a favorite in-house hobby (or dance it out?)

2. Apply the “out of sight, out of mind” method. If we have comfort food within our reach, we are more likely to dive right in. Avoid purchasing high fat and high sugar foods like chips, cakes, cookies, biscuits, and ice-cream. Don’t grocery shop while you are hungry.

3. Craving a brownie or a cookie? There are lots of alternative healthier recipes out there that are sure to satisfy that craving with less toxic ingredients. Make it at home with oats and dark chocolate instead.

4. Ditch the guilt. Remember, we can all get back on track the following meal or day. Go easy on yourself. It’s a pandemic.

5. Focus on sleeping better. We’ve all heard that before, but poor sleep causes imbalances in the HPA axis, reduces insulin resistance, affects cortisol levels, and leads to food cravings. Aim for 7-9 hours.

6. Seek online professional help for guidance and support when feeling stuck.

What to eat if you don’t move at all during self-isolation

Gulf News also spoke to Nick Mitchell, the owner and founder of the Ultimate Performance gym in DIFC.

Nick Mitchell

Should I consume less calories now that I don’t move as much?

We need to think about how different our days are. Do we burn more or fewer calories per day now compared to before self-isolation? The chances are, yes. If you're moving around less and generally less active, we simply do not need as many calories per day. If you're more active with the kids and chasing around the house, you might need more! You need to think about your personal situation and whether you're more or less active.

How can you stop yourself from constantly snacking, which is easy to do when you are at home?

Nick: Snacking is all of our new worst enemies! It's normally a result of being bored or not stimulated. You can find a good book to read, a friend to call or simply play games with the family! Other tips include only eating at one place in the house (the dinner table!) and avoid eating on the sofa, intermittent fasting is great and finally, preparing your meals for the following day.

What are 5 ingredients you have to eat a day to nourish your body?

Nick: The 5 ingredients you need to nourish your body are; lean protein sources (chicken breast), healthy fats (olive oil, nuts, and seeds), seed vegetables (peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers), fibrous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, green beans) and of course, water.

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