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Most Americans say the pandemic has been bad for their weight

Body weight changes during shelter-in-place
Body weight changes during shelter-in-place 01:13

Dealing with stress during the pandemic has caused physical changes for many Americans — some have gained undesired weight, and others have unintentionally lost weight. The American Psychological Association's Stress in America pandemic survey polled 3,013 adults in the U.S. and found that the majority, 61%, said they experienced undesired weight changes.

Forty-two percent of U.S. adults said they gained more weight than they intended, and of those, the amount they reported gaining averaged 29 pounds. Ten percent said they gained more than 50 pounds. Weight gain that leads to obesity can put people at higher risk for serious illness from coronavirus

More women (45%) reported weight gain than men (39%) but men reported a higher average gain at 37 pounds, compared to the women's average of 22 pounds.

The study also broke down the data by age group, finding 48% of millennials reported weight gain. This group reported the highest average weight gain at 41 pounds. Just over half of Gen Z adults reported undesired weight gain, with an average gain of 28 pounds. 

Dr. Angela Fitch, vice president of the Obesity Medicine Association, told CBS News she finds the numbers reported by millennials "striking."

"As an obesity medicine specialist... I find it to be alarming, for sure," Fitch said. "But you can see where it could be the case. I mean, it's been a very challenging year, on multiple levels." 

Fitch, who is associate director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Weight Center, said she has seen patients at the center who have struggled with weight due to the pandemic. "I've had a lot of patients back that say they gained weight, that I used to see before the pandemic and were doing quite well with weight loss," Fitch told CBS News.

While self-reported surveys have often proven to be less accurate than studies where researchers measure participants, other research is tracking evidence of pandemic-era weight gain. Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco found participants in a heart-health study whose weight was monitored from February 1 to June 1, 2020 gained approximately 1.5 pounds per month after states instituted shelter-in-place orders last spring.

Fitch said that if further data backs up the self-reporting of the APA survey participants, and Americans really have gained that many pounds, "it's going to be a significant issue for us in the United States." 

"I haven't seen any data on this yet," Fitch said. "So, I don't know if we have anything better to report on than this [survey]."

The survey found groups most impacted by weight gain were also among those who experienced extra challenges during the pandemic: parents and essential workers. About half of each group reported undesired weight gain, with parents reporting an average gain of 36 pounds and essential workers an average gain of 38 pounds.

"We have seen a lot of patients of ours that are nurses that express that quite a bit, that they've had weight gain, because of the stress and because it's hard to eat now in the hospital — taking off your mask to drink, to eat, is a challenging situation, so it does make for eating potentially not as healthfully or skipping meals and then eating more in one sitting," Fitch said. 

The survey also found 18% of participants reported undesired weight loss, shedding an average 26 pounds. 

Weight changes weren't the only issue reported in the survey. Many people also said they experienced unwanted changes in sleep patterns and increased alcohol consumption. Sixty-seven percent said they have been sleeping more or less than desired since the pandemic started, and 23% reported drinking more alcohol to cope with their stress.

Fitch added that drinking more alcohol certainly attributes to higher calorie intake. "That, being home more, eating more out of stress, and stress in and of itself is a known factor in weight gain and obesity," she said. 

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