How to Shed the Quarantine 15 Weight Gain Naturally
Think “Quarantine 15” is a gimmick? Think again; it really is a thing. And if you’re one of the masses who’s packed on some pounds in the last year, know that you’re not the only one.
Even if quarantine 15 weight gain is a bit overstated, there’s little question that nearly all of our lives have been turned on their figurative heads in the last year or so. As a result, the pursuit of “deep health” has almost certainly taken a hit for the lion’s share of people. In other words, even if you didn’t pack on the equivalent of the “Freshman 15” in 2020, there’s a good chance you could brush up in some area of your path to wellness.
(I know I sure can. We had twin boys in January of last year, and I have an epic sleep debt to make up for!)
As evidence of real-world quarantine 15 weight gain, in a poll of more than 1,000 WebMD readers, 54% of men and women said they had gained weight.1 Not all studies have revealed such jaw-dropping numbers. Other reports published in peer-reviewed journals, for example, have found that about 20 – 22% of participants admit to gaining a significant amount of weight (i.e., more than 5 pounds) during the pandemic.2,3
Importantly, however, is that even if quarantine 15 weight gain is a bit overplayed by pop culture, there’s crystal clear evidence that key behaviors that will almost definitely contribute to weight gain over the long haul are on the rise.
One of the probable suspects, which we’ll discuss below, is people are snacking more. For instance, the WebMD poll found that 68% of participants are snacking more than before. If that sounds like you, guess what’s one thing you can do immediately to help ditch the quarantine 15?
In addition to snacking, several other risk factors have emerged as contributors to quarantine 15 weight gain (none of which are huge surprises, if I’m being honest):3
- Eating in response to stress
- Lack of sleep
- Decreased physical activity (54% of the people who participated in the poll cited above admitted to exercising less)
- Lack of dietary restraint (e.g., eating because of the appearance and smell of food)
Along those lines, there’s very good news if you just relatively recently gained weight: It’s easier to take it off (compared to unwanted weight that’s “been there” for a while). While individual differences apply (such as factors like starting weight, dieting history, and activity levels, for example), it’s not far-fetched to think that one could shed their quarantine 15 weight gain in just a matter of months (even a month).
Just keep in mind that such extreme results typically demand drastic measures, which are generally not sustainable for the long haul. In other words, you can’t run an entire marathon at a sprinting pace. However, you can sprint, at times, over the course of a long-distance race. Said differently, if you crank up the heat for a short period of time in an effort to torch the quarantine 15, you ultimately need to ease into a steady set of more sustainable practices that allow you to maintain your weight loss.
Let’s start off with what this is NOT: It’s not a diet. It’s not a workout routine. What it is, on the other hand, is a set of tips, tools, and skills that—when consistently practiced—can be used strategically to say sayonara to the quarantine 15.
In other words, rather than a cookie-cutter program, consider it a checklist that’s meant to serve as a guide—a user’s manual, if you will—to help you shed that quarantine 15 weight gain.
With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s dig in!
Quarantine 15 Weight Loss Guide
In today’s article about Quarantine 15 weight loss guide, we will cover the following steps:
- Step 1: Power Up with Protein
- Step 2: Meal Replacement
- Step 3: Try Intermittent Fasting
- Step 4: Stop Snacking
- Step 5: Earn Carbs
- Step 6: Eat Real, Whole Foods
- Step 7: Drink More Water
- Step 8: Ditch the Alcohol
- Step 9: Take a “Cheat” Day
- Step 10: Walk, Walk and Walk Some More
- Step 11: Lift (Preferably Heavy Stuff) Often
- Step 12: Be Inefficient
- Step 13: Prioritize Sleep
- Step 14: Take a Deep Breath
- Three Bonus Keys
While the dietary pendulum continues to swing from carbs to fat, there’s one powerhouse macronutrient that’s exempt from the endless diet debates: PROTEIN. And the reason is simple: When it comes to losing fat and getting (and staying lean), higher-protein diets flat-out work.
Research has shown that higher-protein diets are not only safe for otherwise healthy folks, they provide nutritional support for a host of other health benefits, two of which are particularly important: 1. Higher-protein diets help increase satiety and improve appetite control. Over the long run, that means they help control caloric intake, reduce cravings, and improve diet quality. And 2. Higher-protein diets are essential for helping preserve (or even increase) lean muscle when dieting for fat loss.
This latter point is especially critical because losing precious calorie-burning lean muscle when dieting (which is unacceptably common) leads to a bunch of problems, including:
- Reduced metabolic rate
- Increased appetite
- Greater likelihood of weight regain
- A host of negative health consequences (e.g., functional, metabolic).
The bottom line is that if you want to look, feel, and perform your best while optimizing fat loss, a higher-protein diet is a linchpin.
Consume 0.7 – 1.0 grams of protein per pound of ideal body weight daily, most days. (See below for food suggestions.) You don’t need to hit that target all the time, just most of the time. In fact, you could argue that an occasional lower-protein intake has benefits of its own.
Here’s the deal: Most people are notoriously horrific when it comes to estimating portion sizes. Although there are considerable variations, some research has shown that people underestimate portion sizes by 30 – 46% or more. 4 This inability to properly estimate portion sizes during periods of dieting results in excessive food intake, which then blunts weight loss. 5
While there’s considerable nuance, when it comes to losing fat, there’s one principle that rules them all…the core energy balance principle, which essentially states that in order to successfully reduce body fat, one must balance between energy intake and expenditure in favor of the former. In other words, you’ve got to burn more calories than you consume.
The strategic use of protein shakes and PMR takes the guesswork out of the equation. Plus, they’re super simple and convenient—two more factors that promote dietary adherence (i.e., the degree to which you “stick” to your diet), which is the key to weight-loss success.
Research shows that PMR strategies “safely and effectively produce significant sustainable weight loss and improve weight-related risk factors of disease.” 6 Just make sure to use a high-quality protein powder. And one of the best candidates for the job is BioTRUST Low Carb.
While I don’t believe that intermittent fasting (in its various forms) is the end-all, be-all that many make it out to be (and it’s certainly not a one-size-fits-all solution that will work flawlessly for everyone), the research shows that intermittent fasting (IF) “works.” What’s more, there are potential benefits to IF beyond weight loss. First, when you change the “when,” you almost invariably change the “how much.” In other words, by limiting when you eat, you typically reduce how much you eat.
Along those lines, many people find “dieting” is easier when they limit their number of meals. This allows them to eat more at each feeding opportunity, which most people find more satisfying. While there are various forms of IF, the most popular, with the lowest barrier to entry, seems to be time-restricted feeding, whereby you fast daily for 12 – 18 hours (i.e., compress your calorie-consumption feeding window to 6 – 12 hours).
Now, if you really want to put down the fat-loss pedal to the figurative metal, I want you to take this a step further: Once or twice per week, skip your largest meal, or fast altogether. In other words, I’m suggesting that you combine two variations of IF: time-restricted feeding and periodic fasting (or modified periodic fasting).
This may sound authoritative (or downright dictatorial), but I do not condone snacking as part of an intentional fat-loss program. Above, I mentioned that one of the biggest contributors to quarantine 15 weight gain is snacking, which doesn’t come as much of a surprise.
You see, the research is incredibly clear that snacking is a major contributor to overeating and, along those lines, a near-surefire way to thwart your fat-loss efforts. In fact, research conducted at the University of North Carolina has found that snacking is a major cause of weight gain and obesity.
I don’t fully subscribe to the low-carb dogma. It’s a helpful rule of thumb, though, because it helps to eliminate a boatload of processed junk. Generally speaking, however, I’d say that carbohydrate intake should be inversely proportionate to body fat levels (e.g., the more fat you have to lose, the lower your carbohydrate intake) and directly proportionate to activity levels (e.g., the more active you are, the higher your carbohydrate intake).
I do find that many folks do better when they save the lion’s share of their daily carbs for the evening (i.e., dinner). Most people tend to be hungriest at this time, which also tends to be the meal with the greatest social context. Evening carbs tend to help with satiety, stress, and sleep (as carbs increase tryptophan levels and stimulate serotonin release). And there can even be some carryover to the next day in terms of appetite management.
That said, I like to suggest that you “earn your carbs.” In other words, if you’re going to eat more carbs later in the day, you also need to be more active (e.g., exercise in the late afternoon/early evening, take a stroll after dinner, etc.).
I realize this may sound insensitive, but sometimes I think being blunt is the best way to get the point across: If you want to look, feel, and move better, you’ve got to eat the part. In other words, the overwhelming majority of the time, focus on eating real, whole foods. Ditch the processed foods, fast food (besides what I mentioned above), junk food, and so on.
You may be wondering, “What should I eat then, Mr. Smarty Pants?” That’s a great question, and one that can be answered with this handy-dandy, easy-to-use chart (that also tells you what to stay away from): What Should I Eat?
Part of the process of eating like a grown-up is to get rid of junk food. Out of sight, out of mind. Or, as Dr. John Berardi, a mentor of mine, puts it, “If a food is in your house or possession, you or someone you marginally tolerate is going to eat it.”
In other words, if there’s tasty, highly-palatable, energy-dense food around, you are going to eat it. In fact, it won’t just call out your name, it will shout it when you’re on a restrictive diet. And when it does, chances are you won’t just eat a bit of it…you’ll devour it, leaving little trace of evidence.
On the other hand, you can’t “eat like a grown-up” if you don’t have healthy, nourishing foods readily and conveniently available. In other words, you have to plan and prepare your way to nutritional success.
Your beverage of choice should be water. When you’re properly hydrated, it can help prevent overeating and promote appetite management. Yes, it’s true that people can mistake thirst for hunger, which results in unnecessary eating (often overeating).
Research also shows that “pre-loading” with a glass of water before meals can have a beneficial impact on weight loss (likely through improved appetite management). Proper hydration also has a beneficial impact on metabolism. For example, researchers from the University of Utah showed that mild dehydration (of just 2 – 3%), which is all too common, can lead to a depressed metabolic rate.
What’s more, it is indeed true that drinking water “boosts” metabolism. In other words, drinking water increases energy expenditure. For instance, experimental data shows that 500 mL of drinking water (about 2 cups) increases energy expenditure by 100 kJ, which is equivalent to about 24 calories burned. That may not sound like a lot, but over the course of a year, drinking 1 liter of water (about 4 cups) daily would increase energy expenditure by about 73 MJ (or 17,400 calories), which is roughly the equivalent of burning off 4 ½ pounds of fat! 7
Generally speaking, water drinkers tend to consume fewer calories and weigh less than non-drinkers. 8 So, how much water should you drink? While you’ve probably heard that you should drink eight 8-ounce glasses of water per day, that “rule” is not based in science, and no one seems to know where the rule came from…other than it’s easy to remember.
Although hydration needs vary from person to person based on activity level, ambient temperature and humidity, altitude level, and numerous other factors, a more person-specific recommendation would be to drink one-half to one ounce of fluid per pound of body weight per day.
While it’s hard to deny that the evidence suggests there are some redeeming health benefits with moderate alcohol consumption, when aggressive fat loss is the goal, the costs outweigh the benefits (at least in the short-term).
For starters, alcohol provides calories, which tend to be additive to calories from other (food) sources. In other words, in the short-term, people don’t compensate by eating less when they drink alcohol.
What’s more, alcohol has little impact on satiety (i.e., feelings of fullness and satisfaction). 9 On the contrary, alcohol may actually stimulate appetite and lead to increased food intake.
Alcohol has been shown to influence a number of hormones linked to satiety. For instance, alcohol may influence food intake by inhibiting the effects of leptin and GLP-1, which are important satiety hormones. 9,10
Interestingly, when consumed before or with meals, alcohol may increase food intake by enhancing the short-term rewarding effects of food. 9 Plus, alcohol is thought to be an example of a “disinhibitor” of restrained eating, which is the purposeful effort to combat urges to eat to manage body weight. While studies don’t clearly support this, most people would argue that they’ve experienced the disinhibitory effect of alcohol on dietary restraint. 9 More likely than not, you’ve made less-than-stellar food choices when drinking—either during, immediately after, or the morning after.
The bottom line is that alcohol generally does not seem to be helpful when it comes to fat loss. And in many cases, it seems to do more harm than good. For most people, it’s better to keep the bottle on the shelf, at least in the short-term when fat loss is the primary objective.
To this point, I’ve been very ambiguous when it comes to caloric intake, save for the dirt-cheap advice that you need to burn more calories than you consume. Let me put it this way: If you want big, measurable results (quickly), then you have to take extreme action. Said differently, drastic measures typically produce drastic results.
Assuming you want to shed quarantine 15 weight gain fairly quickly, then you might cut calories to 1,200 – 1,500 per day, on average. That’s just a ballpark estimate that may apply to a decent number of folks, but of course, individual differences vary. This also assumes you’d still nail your protein goals most of the time.
If you take an aggressive approach such as this, there’s a key caveat: Every 10 – 14 days (roughly every 2 weeks), you should “take a break.” By that, I mean you intentionally and mindfully ramp up your intake of calories for two days. More specifically, I’d suggest ramping up caloric intake about 50% (or roughly 600 – 800 calories per day), primarily by increasing carbohydrate intake.
This strategy, known as intermittent energy restriction, seems to help in a number of ways. First, many people find that this pattern of non-linear dieting has psychological advantages. Basically, you get a mental reprieve, and research on these diet breaks show they don’t have negative consequences. In other words, you won’t gain fat (when done properly and intentionally).
The physiological benefits are also numerous. For example, non-linear dieting can combat a process known as “adaptive thermogenesis” (aka metabolic adaptation), which is science speak for the metabolic, behavioral, and hormonal changes that, practically speaking, make weight loss very difficult.
This would include things like reductions in metabolic rate and spontaneous activity and, perhaps most noticeably, a powerful drive to eat more. In short, you get really hungry, and food tastes really, really good, as your hunger hormones skyrocket and the activity of your food-reward systems shoot through the roof.
The bottom line is that fat loss feels like it moves at a turtle’s pace, and it seems like every moment of every day is like mental and physiological warfare in a battle against evolutionary human biology.
Research shows that intermittent energy restriction seems to help attenuate, to a meaningful degree, adaptive thermogenesis, and thus improve fat loss and weight maintenance.11,12 Plus, it just makes the process more tolerable, if not enjoyable.
Since you’ll be skipping meals (as mentioned above), one of the easiest ways to implement this strategy is to add a high-calorie, high-carb meal to your normal routine for two consecutive days. There’s some evidence to suggest that a big breakfast may be the most appropriate way to do so, as research has shown that consuming a high-calorie breakfast boosts metabolism twice as high as when the same meal is consumed at dinner time.13
As a strength coach and personal trainer, I’m all about working out (more on that below). But before we even talk about structured exercise, the first piece of the puzzle is moving your body more throughout the day. In other words, before you even get started with a workout program, in my opinion, you need to establish plentiful low-level physical activity.
One of the best activities is to walk. Take a walk in the morning before you eat. Take a walk after meals. Take walking meetings. Take a walk with your spouse, partner, neighbor, kids, or friends. Take a walk while you’re on the phone. Walk, walk, and walk some more.
Ideally, I’d suggest shooting for at least 30 – 60 minutes of brisk walking, or about 2 – 3 miles per day. As far as step count, a good target is at least 8,500 steps per day (more is almost certainly better), based on recent research (from the University of Texas Human Performance Laboratory) that has not yet been published.
I also urge you to “get off your tail” during the day, engaging in more low-level physical activity like chores, playing with the kids or pets, dancing, stretching, and so on. This type of spontaneous activity increases a component of metabolism known as non-exercise activity thermogenesis (or NEAT for short). And it can be a game-changer when it comes to helping you lose fat, as well as boost focus, creativity, and energy levels, help with pain management, improve blood sugar regulation, increase circulation, and more.
If you’re going to exercise (don’t get me wrong, I urge you to do so), then the place to start is with strength training for the long list of reasons I discuss in length here.
Among other things, you’ll see that lifting weights is THE way to build muscle. Above, I harped on how critical maintaining muscle is when dieting. I want to put a big, fat exclamation point on that here: As we get older—even if we don’t gain weight—our bodies will change for the worse. In other words, we will lose muscle, and we will gain fat (even if the number on the scale doesn’t change).
In fact, we typically see a decline in muscle mass of about 3 – 8% every passing decade once we hit the age of 30. Even though that doesn’t seem like headline-grabbing news, it can have dreadful and downright lethal consequences. Of course, it also impacts how you look, feel, and move.
The good news is you can do something about it, as you can quite literally combat and overcome the typical age-related decline in muscle mass with regular strength training. While you can actually build muscle with both light (i.e., high reps) and heavier weights, you can only build meaningful strength with the latter.
In other words, although there are some nuances, spending the majority of your time training with heavier loads (e.g., 65 – 85% of your 1-repetition maximum) is a double-edged sword for building muscle and strength. Because building strength is a skill, you must practice, and often, the greater the frequency, the better.
Focus on training the fundamental movement patterns, such as squatting, pressing/pushing, pulling/rowing, and hinging (e.g., deadlifts, swings). And if you’re proficient, spend the bulk of your training time doing bodyweight and free weight (e.g., barbells, kettlebells) exercises.
As mentioned, when it comes to getting strong and building muscle, consistency is king. In other words, you don’t need to constantly change up your routine and exercises, although you will need to pay respect to the principle of progressive overload (meaning there has to be some progression over time).
Along those lines, you can vary the weight, reps, sets, rest between sets, and so on to progressively increase the demands imposed on your body. When it comes to fat loss, it’s also a good idea to be inefficient with your exercise. In other words, we want to also consider using exercise as a tool to burn more calories, both during and after activity.
So, in addition to strength training, you can consider occasionally including strategies like complexes and some of the other techniques discussed here. While high-intensity interval training (HIIT) gets a lot of love, I wouldn’t necessarily go overboard with it. Although it’s advertised as a time-efficient alternative to traditional aerobic training (and it can indeed be), I’ve seen it wear down a lot of people mentally and physically when relied upon too heavily and frequently.
For those of us who are mere mortals, we don’t necessarily want our training to leave us to be wiped up off the floor. The goal—most of the time, at least—is to finish feeling better (mentally, emotionally, and physically) than when we started, so we have juice in the tank for the rest of what the day has to offer.
Speaking of time, you don’t need one- to two-hour blocks of time for training. Five minutes here and ten minutes there can be just as effective (and sometimes more so). In other words, I’m encouraging you to bake movement into your day (e.g., movement breaks, exercise snacks), and that includes sporadic bursts of effort you can sprinkle in between answering emails, working on a project, etc.
In general, lack of sleep contributes to weight gain. As mentioned above, it’s called out as one of the prominent suspects in quarantine 15 weight gain. There are multiple potential explanations for this relationship. For starters, being awake for more hours increases the opportunities to eat. Of course, chances are pretty good that your food choices are going to be less than stellar at those late-night hours.
Also, lack of sleep seems to impact hunger hormones. For example, not getting enough sleep results in lower levels of the satiety hormone leptin, which results in increased hunger and appetite. 14
As you also may have experienced, lack of sleep tends to have a negative impact on self-control, and along those lines, insufficient sleep increases overeating and unhealthy food choices. 15,16
What’s more, when you’re running short on sleep, you’re more likely to skip workouts, take the path of least resistance, and in general, be less physically active.
Sleep is also mission critical when it comes to losing fat and gaining/maintaining muscle while dieting. For instance, research shows that lack of sleep results in less fat lost and more lean muscle lost. 17
Set yourself up for sleep success by making sure you’re in bed for eight hours every night. Just as importantly, if not more importantly, is when you go to bed. Many experts agree that the earlier you go to bed, the better. In other words, sleeping from 10 pm to 6 am is likely to yield noticeably better sleep quality than sleeping from 2 am to 10 am, despite the fact that each scenario involves 8 hours of sleep.
The pandemic has altered every aspect of American life, from health and work to education and exercise. To say there has been extreme stress associated with the crisis would be an understatement.
Although individuals respond to stress uniquely, a pretty hefty chunk of people turn to food for comfort and to calm their nerves (either consciously or subconsciously). While stress-eating doesn’t impact everyone, it has certainly reared its ugly head and contributed to quarantine 15 weight gain in many cases.
What’s more, persistent stress may also preferentially lead to gaining fat in the abdominal/visceral region (i.e., belly fat).18 In addition to directly altering eating behaviors, stress of this nature can negatively impact sleep, physical activity patterns, alcohol consumption, and more, which can all adversely affect one’s waistline and overall well-being.
Although stress isn’t inherently bad, the nature of the stress most of us are incessantly facing these days is the type that wears us down (instead of building us up). Considering that none of us is single-handedly capable of making it all go away, it’s imperative that we learn to practice appropriate techniques to properly manage stress and our responses to stress.
In this article, I provide an arsenal of tools you can use, including supplements and stress-management tactics, such as social support, prayer, gratitude, grounding, breath work, and hot/cold therapy. I’d have to say that one of the most effective and easily accessible (one that you always have with you) is your breath.
In particular, nasal breathing (i.e., breathing through your nose) at a rate of about 6 breaths per minute (roughly 5 seconds in and 5 seconds out) for 2 minutes can be a game-changer for putting a damper on levels of the stress hormone cortisol, while also promoting calm, focused attention and feelings of well-being.19
There are three “bonus” items I’d add to this list to help shed the quarantine 15 weight gain: 1. The big deadline; 2. Accountability; and 3. Having skin in the game. As far as the big deadline goes, nearly everyone I know (myself included) puts their best foot forward when there’s a finish line in sight, when their back is against the wall, and when there is a sense of urgency.
As far as accountability, it is one of the cornerstones of the behavior-based approach to weight management. There are multiple ways to put this to work for you. First, you can hire a coach to hold you accountable. This is someone you respect and deeply don’t want to disappoint.
You can also join a group—whether online or in person—to help hold you accountable as well as provide support. This is arguably the secret sauce behind many of the most popular weight-loss programs (not the “diet” itself). You can even announce your plans to your friends/followers on social media platforms. There’s surely one or two people out there who will keep you honest.
What about having skin in the game? Let’s face it, most people will only make changes when the pain of not changing exceeds the pain change. In other words, we need to make it hurt a little bit. One of the ways to do this is to put some serious money on the line. That is, you do what you say you’re going to do, or you have to fork over more than just lunch money. The amount needs to be substantial enough that it serves as motivation. For example, you might join a couple of friends who are also looking to shed the quarantine 15 weight gain. If you don’t achieve your goal by a pre-determined time, then you have to pay up. (This strategy would actually cover all three bases mentioned above.)
You can also use an app like stickK, which employs this very evidence-based principle known as a commitment contract—a tool that has been shown to be effective for weight loss.20
Shedding the Quarantine 15 Weight Gain
While this can almost certainly be approached as a step-by-step guide to shed the quarantine 15 weight gain once and for all, I understand that this list may seem overwhelming, if not daunting. If that’s the case, start where you are. Pick the lowest hanging fruit. After you nail it consistently, move on to the next one…then the next one…and so on until you’re where you want to be.
Finally, let me remind you that this too shall pass. Although we are all navigating our own boats of change, we are on the same sea. This is a weird struggle that we share in common, yet in many ways, we feel left to our own devices. You are not alone. I’m here for you; we’re here for you. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to let us know how we can help. You got this!