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Be Wary of the Effects of 'Quarantine 15' on Your Waistline

By Deborah Barkin Fromer
Faculty Member, School of Health Sciences, American Military University

“Quarantine 15” is the term given to the notion that during the COVID-19 pandemic and stay-at-home order, Americans are gaining weight because eating is one of the few activities they can enjoy indoors besides watching TV or playing video games. The term undoubtedly comes from the “Freshman 15,” a reference to the number of pounds gained during a student’s first year at college.

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Obesity is one of the most studied and important health problems worldwide. Weight gain is a concern to many people.

Individuals’ Healthy Behaviors Have Changed Due to COVID-19

The impulse to overeat can be challenging when you are spending most of your time at home to avoid catching or spreading the highly communicable COVID-19. You are seconds away from your refrigerator and may be struggling with feelings of boredom or stress. Instead of actually being hungry, you may need comfort, a quick break or a walk outside. It’s wise to with that idea.

Of course, spending more time sitting uses less energy than standing or moving. A Mayo Clinic study has linked sitting for long periods of time with a number of health concerns, including obesity.

Americans are weathering the COVID-19 disease by stocking up on items with long shelf lives that may also be calorie- and sodium-dense, such as canned meats and soups, pretzels, and macaroni and cheese. As Bloomberg News put it in a headline, “Americans Drop Kale and Quinoa to Lock Down With Chips and Oreos.”

Bloomberg reported in March that popcorn sales rose nearly 48 percent compared with a year earlier, while pretzel sales were up 47 percent and potato chip sales surged 30 percent. Chocolate and ice cream sales also have risen, and pastry purchases grew by more than 18 percent.

“People are retreating back into comfort habits,” said Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Jennifer Bartashus. “There’s a lot of uncertainty and in those kind of times people tend to retreat to what’s known to them and what’s comforting to them.”

The Quarantines Effect on Children

Even before the near-universal shutdown of schools and colleges, a study published on the Wiley Online Library suggested that school closures could worsen the epidemic of childhood obesity. Another study in the National Library of Medicine has shown that children experience weight gain primarily during the summer months when they are out of school. Sedentary activities and screen time have sent video game usage soaring.

Tips to Avoid the “Quarantine 15”

Eating a healthy diet is especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic. If you’re worried about gaining weight or if you’ve already noticed you’ve added a few pounds due to the “Quarantine 15,” Men’s Journal has a few tips especially for those who are working from home:

  • Set up your environment for success
  • Set timers for fitness breaks
  • Prepare meals for the week
  • Give yourself excuses to move more
  • Find healthy ‘break’ ideas besides eating
  • Do 15-minute fitness bursts
  • Create a “no-eating zone” in your workspace

In the near future, it’s hoped that researchers collecting data and studying weight trends during the COVID-19 quarantine should have some answers about the value of social distancing, isolation, sheltering-in-place, sudden unemployment, working/schooling from home, stress, and the basic disruption to usual routines. Their findings should prove invaluable.

About the Author

Deborah Barkin Fromer received a B.S. in biology at the Sage Colleges in Albany, New York, and was certified with the American Society of Clinical Pathologists as a medical technologist in 1976. She worked in the clinical laboratory as a medical technologist specializing in microbiology. In the 1990s, Ms. Fromer became interested in public health, returned to graduate school and completed a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree at Wichita State University in Wichita, Kansas.

Ms. Fromer spent several years at the University of Kansas School of Medicine as a researcher in obstetrics and gynecology, and several years as a researcher and teaching associate in preventive medicine and public health. She has taught online epidemiology and public health courses since 2001.

From 2007-2015, Ms. Fromer was an epidemiologist at the Sedgwick County Health Department in Wichita, Kansas. Her work involved electronic surveillance of reportable disease and medical conditions, investigating outbreaks and illness, solving mysteries, and keeping people in the community educated and healthy.

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