Many people gained weight during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some even gained weight due to hormonal, appetite, or activity changes from having COVID. Experts have some tips on how to lose unwanted weight and return to activity.

If you gained weight during the pandemic, whether or not had COVID-19, you’re in good company.

A 2022 study of 3,473 people found that nearly half (48%) gained weight during the pandemic. A 2021 study by the American Psychological Association reported an even higher percentage (61%).

In the study authors found that weight gain was due to a combination of stressors that most of us experienced during the pandemic:

  • fear
  • social isolation
  • inactivity
  • loss of loved ones
  • work-life imbalance
  • increases in unhealthy eating patterns

Some people who developed COVID-19 also gained weight, though losing weight during an illness is more common. Here’s what may be behind that weight gain and what you can do to shed the extra pounds if desired.

It’s more common to lose weight if you have COVID. According to studies from 2020 and 2021, you’re more likely to lose weight if you have COVID for a long time, are hospitalized, or have more severe complications.

However, hormonal changes and other factors can lead to weight gain after recovery from the disease. Having overweight or obesity before getting sick is a risk factor for weight gain afterward.

Carrying excess weight makes you more likely to develop COVID-19, experience hospitalization, and develop serious complications.

You’re also more likely to get long COVID if you have overweight or obesity, a 2021 study found. “Long COVID” means experiencing COVID symptoms or consequences weeks, months, or years after SARS-CoV-2 infection.

If you carry too much extra weight and then develop COVID, you may experience changes in your body composition.

The 2021 study followed 185 people who recovered from the virus. The authors found that those who carried excess weight before getting sick were more likely to gain weight after recovery. Their waist circumferences also increased.

A high waist-to-hip ratio is a risk factor for chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.

Other reasons you may gain weight when you have COVID (or after having COVID) include:

  • Polyphagia: Polyphagia causes an increased appetite and the inability to feel satisfied despite eating large amounts. COVID-related hormone disturbances can cause polyphagia.
  • Reduced activity: Feeling sick can lead to weight gain simply because you’re moving less while eating the same amount of calories. Fatigue can hang around for a long time after recovery. Long COVID can also diminish your exercise capacity.
  • Weight regain: People who have overweight and obesity, but lose weight while sick or hospitalized, often regain the weight. The regain might be due to nutrition changes and loss of lean body mass, which lowers metabolism.
  • Hormonal changes: Stress can cause an increase in cortisol levels, which may change your appetite and lead you to overeat.

Can COVID-19 cause you to develop diabetes?

Researchers believe having COVID-19 can increase your risk of diabetes.

A 2022 analysis of studies that included 40 million people found that those with COVID, regardless of age or gender, had an increased risk of diabetes.

If COVID-19 contributed to your development of overweight or obesity, you may be at increased risk of type 2 diabetes.

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If you’ve gained weight after COVID-19, you can take steps to get healthier and reduce your weight if that’s your goal.

Manage your stress

The authors of the 2022 study looked at weight gain during the COVID-19 pandemic in the general population and found that those who reported certain mental health conditions were more likely to gain weight. People were more than 50% more likely to gain weight if they had anxiety or depression.

Talk with a healthcare professional about managing stress and anxiety with treatments such as talk therapy, medication, or other strategies. Also, consider other stress management techniques such as exercise and meditation.

Know your numbers

Weight loss is a game of numbers. To lose weight, you have to use more energy (in the form of calories) than you consume (in the form of food). Most health organizations recommend eating a little less and exercising a little more to reach a calorie deficit.

Talk with a healthcare professional about how much you should aim to lose and how quickly.

Develop a plan

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends starting a weight loss program by following five steps to develop a realistic plan:

  1. Commit to your goal and write out your reasons for weight loss somewhere you can see them.
  2. Take a realistic look at your eating and exercise habits.
  3. Set goals that are specific, realistic, and forgiving.
  4. Find resources for information and support.
  5. Track your progress and adjust your approach as needed.

Return to exercise gradually

Whether or not you exercised regularly before COVID-19, getting into an exercise routine after the illness can be difficult. Experts recommend ramping up your activity slowly.

One such approach is the 50/30/20/10 rule. For the first week, reduce your activities to 50% of what you were used to or what your goal is. The next week your goal can be reduced by 30%, and so on, until you meet your goal.

Tips for healthy eating

Eating less shouldn’t mean skipping meals. It’s more about what you eat. Experts recommend the following food tips:

  • Eat lots of fruits and vegetables.
  • Eat food with a lot of fiber.
  • Read food labels.
  • Use smaller plates.
  • Don’t cut out whole categories of foods.
  • Don’t keep junk food on hand.
  • Cut down on alcohol.

Can GLP-1 agonists such as Ozempic help me get rid of COVID weight gain?

Healthcare professionals prescribe semaglutide injections (e.g., Ozempic or Wegovy) to help people with type 2 diabetes and obesity or overweight.

Like all medications, they carry risks of side effects. A 2022 study found that you may also regain lost weight when you stop using semaglutide injections. Talk with a doctor about whether they can help you lose weight or maintain a moderate weight.

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Talk with a healthcare professional if you:

  • have gained a lot of weight in a short amount of time
  • are experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression
  • have symptoms of long COVID

Pandemic-related stressors such as isolation, stress, and inactivity caused weight gain for many people during the pandemic, including some who had COVID-19. While it’s more common to lose weight when you’re sick, having overweight or obesity before developing COVID is a risk factor for weight gain after recovery.

If you gained weight during the pandemic, you can take small and steady steps to reach your desired weight. Above all, watch your stress. Researchers have found that stress and related conditions such as anxiety and depression were the biggest culprits of pandemic-related weight gain.