CANTON, Mass. — Joseph Mulkay didn’t contract Covid during the pandemic. But he did experience a side effect many Americans couldn’t get away from: weight gain.
“I’d say I gained 20, 30 pounds,” Mukay said. “I’m back to exercising. I hope to take it off soon.”
Lockdowns, curtailed activities and, in some cases, a revived interest in home cooking and baking, took its toll on the American waistline. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports 16 states achieved adult obesity levels greater than 35 percent in 2020 That’s up from 12 states in 2019 and nine in 2018.
Captain Heidi Blanck, chief of the Obesity Prevention and Control Branch at the CDC, suggested it could have been worse.
“Although that is an increase, it is good news that we’re not seeing additional states at this time,” Blanck said. “Because there’s been a lot of stress and extra aspects of the pandemic that have changed individual’s lifestyle habits.”
And stress does have a direct link to weight gain, said Fatima Cody Stanford, MD, MPH, an obesity medicine specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital.
“What is associated with increased stress is increased storage of adipose or fat tissue,” Stanford said. This is especially true of chronic stress, she added -- certainly what most have experienced during the pandemic.
“Typically, our stressors, if you look at us through an evolutionary perspective, were kind of acute in nature -- acute harm and acute danger,” Stanford said. “So we didn’t see this accumulation (of stress). But our stressors now tend to be more chronic in nature.”
Stanford said there are a hundred other contributors to obesity -- ranging from genetics to behavior to cultural influences -- and she said it’s a mistake to simplify what is a complex disease.
But, at the root of obesity, there is a simple truth, she said: “I think that our bodies are just prone to stressors. And stress, especially chronic stress, leads to storage of fat.”
And that may explain the very high prevalence of obesity in Black Americans.
The new CDC study found the obesity rate among Black adults exceeded 35 percent in 35 states and the District of Columbia, but in only 7 states for White adults and 22 states for Hispanic adults.
“I think it speaks to the chronic stress that’s in the black community,” Stanford said.
The new report finds not a single state had an overall adult obesity rate under 20 percent -- and only three states -- Massachusetts, Colorado and Hawaii, along with the District of Columbia -- even came close to that mark.
Blanck said although those states look good in comparison to the others, their numbers are still too high.
“We have a lot of individuals that are being put at risk for other chronic conditions,” Blanck said. “So, really, bringing that number in adults down to zero is really our goal.”
In that sense, the pandemic was a setback -- one that’s got many Americans clawing their way back to pre-Covid fitness levels.
“There were definitely times when you’re in a little bit of a funk and depression and you’re not really motivated,” said Jennifer Crowley of Canton. “You’re not seeing anybody except for your family. So you’re not really motivated to dress up and throw anything on besides sweats. So inherently then, yeah, you throw on a few extra pounds.”
She’s glad to be back outside in 2021. Focusing on fresh air and getting healthy.
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