STARKVILLE — For every reason to eat excessively, someone is pushing a diet plan to reverse the scales, but there’s more to a healthy weight than consuming fewer calories and burning more energy.
Weight gain can be brought on by the holiday season, the “freshman 15,” or the first year of marriage. In recent months, many have struggled with the “COVID 19” — weight gain brought on by mental health struggles and isolation. Common motivators for losing weight include getting a “beach body,” participating in an upcoming wedding or planning for an easier recovery from surgery.
David Buys, state health specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said there is a clear connection between stress and weight gain. Millions of people have been stressed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“In a lot of ways, our struggle to stay physically healthy is connected to our mental health and well-being,” Buys said.
He said living through the pandemic has caused nearly everyone to experience a loss of some kind, and those losses bring a heavy toll.
“There’s been loss of routine, income, health, and friends and loved ones,” Buys said. “It’s upended our confidence and led many people to experience unusual levels of stress, anxiety or depression.
“When that happens, some of us turn to comfort foods or just more convenient ways of eating that are not as nutritionally robust. In other cases, we may have a loss of appetite or will to be active,” he said.
For those truly struggling with stress or mental health challenges, it may be helpful to seek support from a medical provider and explore medication to find balanced living again. As mental health is restored, the rest of the body can begin to recover.
Qula Madkin, MSU Extension instructor and registered dietitian at the Central Mississippi Research and Extension Center in Raymond, said people sometimes get caught in an unhealthy loop that leads to weight gain, and they need to take positive action.
“Health is wealth, and I would like everyone to focus on their health — both gaining health and maintaining good health — rather than emphasizing weight loss,” Madkin said.
The Standard American Diet is an eating pattern that favors a high intake of fast and processed foods mainly composed of added sugar, refined grains, added salts, preservatives and trans fats. Madkin said the number of Mississippians consuming this diet increases over time due to multiple factors like cost, availability and access.
Getting healthier requires an individual approach, she said, but being active whenever possible is a great starting place.
“I encourage people to go outside more often and do more activity outdoors,” Madkin said. “Taking advantage of sunlight is huge, as it reduces stress and allows vitamin D synthesis to occur. When outdoor activity is not an option, find opportunities to be active inside.”
Rather than recommending that people follow restrictive diets, Madkin suggests making lifestyle changes one small step at a time, focusing more on personal longevity and quality of life.
“In my opinion, people should really think less about weight loss and more about their health,” Madkin said. “My goal is for people to be healthier. If I can help someone understand what that looks like for them, it can lead to weight loss, but weight loss does not necessarily equal health.”
Madkin defined health as being physically active, drinking more water, eating more vegetables and fruits, and consuming less sugar and processed foods. It also includes self-care and having a complete state of physical, mental and social well-being.
“With lifestyle change, we like to see 1 to 2 pounds of weight loss a week,” Madkin said. “This rate of weight loss and increased activity allow you to maintain muscle mass.”
When trying to set a weight loss goal, Madkin urged people to try for 5-10% of their body weight. For a 160-pound person, that would mean a goal of losing 8 to 16 pounds over a month or two.
“That is an excellent place to start,” she said. “Set doable, relatable and reachable goals. Make sure they are goals that you can meet, and then you can push yourself to meet another goal after you have succeeded in your first goal.”
Madkin also encouraged people to think of waist circumference as a strong indicator of health and to recognize that body shape is granted by genetics and often cannot be substantially changed.
“People have different shapes, and we all carry weight in different areas of the body,” Madkin said. “We can enhance our body shape or try to lose weight in certain areas, but you can’t change your genetic shape.”
As opposed to a generic body mass index — or BMI score — Madkin said it is better to consider factors like body fat percentage, waist circumference, the distribution of body fat and a personal assessment of how you feel.
In addition to healthy eating choices, good physical exercise is the next necessary component to losing weight and keeping it off. It does not take a gym membership or expensive equipment to do this.
“Find physical activity and movement opportunities that work for you,” Madkin said. “Remember, you’ve been through a pandemic, so don’t be so hard on yourself. Give yourself a pat on the back and make health happen for you.”
The MSU Extension Service offers the MSU Nutrition and Wellness Facebook Page for doable nutrition and wellness tips to improve health.