A Registered Dietitian's Perspective On "Quarantine Fifteen"

by Katy Keogh, MS, RDN, LD

Last Updated: April 29, 2020

Career change? Having children? Being quarantined in your home? The common thread of change weaves them all together. As the COVID-19 situation feels like it’s changing minute by minute, it’s easy to feel that our eating habits are “off track.” Naturally, this can lead to concern that this will impact our health long-term, wondering “How or when will I ever get back on track?” This anxiety about weight gain has even prompted a new phrase- “Quarantine 15,” summarizing the fear that we could come out of this crisis 15 pounds heavier. As we find ourselves faced with a change in our eating habits, take comfort in the fact that changes to eating patterns for a few days, weeks or even a few months likely won’t impact our health long term. Here’s a few reasons why:
  1. You are designed to withstand hardship.
    For eons, and even in current times, humans have withstood famine, periods of inadequate or unbalanced nutrition, and have survived. In ancient times, there were periods with no protein to eat, and likely little access to fruits and vegetables in the winter. Our nutritional inadequacies now are likely to be shorter lived as we are exposed to a stable food supply with much more nutrient diversity. Just as our forefathers had large fluctuations in their eating patterns from year to year and season to season, we can also handle those changes.
  2. Homeostasis - biological science to the rescue.
    When changes to our eating habits occur, our bodies are also designed to pursue homeostasis, otherwise known as balance. Most bodily systems will do whatever they can to try to maintain a relatively stable state, despite small or large changes in the system. Our systems are designed to use small fluctuations to counterbalance other fluctuations in order to balance the whole system. Hormones, digestion, metabolism, blood pressure, etc – they all can alter when needed to create balance. For example, if your iron intake or storage is low, you’ll generally absorb or digest iron better. On the contrary, if you have ample iron stores, you’ll excrete more and absorb less iron. This is the case with other vitamins and minerals, and other systems in our body. Due to the body’s pursuit of homeostasis, short term changes in eating patterns are generally insignificant in the long run since the body tends to balance it out.
  3. Long term averages matter most.
    When it comes to measuring health, the gold standard is typically blood lab values. Many important nutrition-related lab values are long-term averages. For example, Hemoglobin A1c, measures the average of blood sugar over 3 months. Even with labs that do change in the short-term, health care providers tend to look at trends long-term. They often compare two or more measurements of the same lab before recommending a change in medical treatment, with the whole process occurring over the course of months. This means that even if we experience a less than desired diet for a short period of time, our lab values may be unaffected.

All of this does not mean that nutritious foods and eating habits don’t matter to our health. They do. However, especially in this moment, it’s a reminder to be gentle with yourself. Reflect that this may not be a realistic time to expect yourself to be 100% nutritious with every single meal eaten or beverage sipped. When you have more realistic expectations, you can begin to move forward and quite possibly make a small but sustainable change even during challenging times.

Next time you find yourself out of an optimal eating routine, it’s OK to reset, but give it time, make it flexible, and don’t forget to pay attention to your body. Bodies are highly skilled at communicating cues about what and when to eat. The key is to learn to listen. And with that, remember the little blip in our eating habits that we experienced during a big life change was only a small footprint in the path of the overall wellness journey.

Disclaimer: This information is educational only and not providing healthcare recommendations. Please see a healthcare provider.

Katy Keogh, MS, RDN, LD

Katy Keogh, MS, RDN, LD

A mom of 2 little kiddos and over 15 years’ experience in nutrition, Katy enjoys helping her patients squeeze good nutrition and activity into an already “full” life and find their own balance with nutrition and health while still enjoying food to the fullest. She is an expert in weight management, mindful eating, digestive health, anti-inflammatory nutrition, culinary nutrition, cooking/baking, and any other topic related to food! Outside of work, you’ll find her traveling, walking, jogging, beer tasting, and eating gelato.