Many South Dakotans have gained weight since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and that has health care experts worried.
The extended stress experienced since early 2020 is seriously affecting mental and physical health, including changes to weight, sleep patterns and alcohol use, according to an American Psychological Association study released in March.
The national study found that the physical health of Americans declined during the pandemic because people are having trouble coping with the stress of the pandemic and are overeating, drinking more alcohol, and taking more drugs.
The psychological association study found that 61% of adults surveyed said they gained weight during the pandemic and almost half said they gained anywhere from 15 to 50 pounds.
“The isolation really led to a decline in mental status,” said Watertown registered dietitian Kelsey Raml. “Losing control of your health habits results in emotional eating, lack of exercise, and before you know it, 10 or 20 pounds are on. With weight gain, things like blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar increase as well.”
South Dakota Department of Health spokesman Daniel Bucheli said the department will be tracking how weight gain has occurred recently in the state but does not yet have data to track changes during the pandemic.
The proportion of South Dakotans who are considered overweight or obese on the Body Mass Index scale was about 60% for the three years leading up to the pandemic, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More recent data was not yet available.
People who gain more than 11 pounds are at higher risk of developing Type 2 diabetes and coronary artery disease, and people who gain more than 24 pounds are at higher risk of having a stroke, according to the National Institutes of Health. According to the CDC, people who are considered overweight are more likely to develop serious symptoms from COVID-19 than those who are considered a healthy weight for their body type.
Children also experienced significant weight gain during the pandemic, when many school and sports activities were paused.
According to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, about one in 10 children ages 5 to 11 gained an average weight gain of 5 pounds during the pandemic. About 16% of South Dakota children aged 5 to 19 years are considered obese, according to 2019 data from the South Dakota Department of Health. Nationally, obesity is present in about 17% of those same-aged children. Data from 2020 will be available in 2022, Bucheli said.
Wellness experts fear the physical symptoms of and stigma around weight gain will overshadow what they say is a more important discussion: mental health and delayed care.
“Weight gain and loss don’t equal healthy or unhealthy,” said Rose Adamski, a master’s student intern in the dietetics program at South Dakota State University. “It’s hard to tie your health to your weight. Weight gain as a result of dealing with a pandemic isn’t really a big issue. Mental health problems and access to foods … were more prevalent.”
When Mariah Weber, a registered dietitian at SDSU, meets a patient that has experienced significant weight gain or loss, her first concern is their mental health. Most of her patients who gained weight over the last year have delayed going to their doctor because they fear the only health concern the physician will address is weight gain, she said.
“Weight gain stigma contributes more to depression and anxiety than the weight gain itself,” Weber said. “Them not going to the doctor is the main concern.”
The majority of Weber’s patients have some form of “disordered eating” or a formal eating disorder. An eating disorder is a diagnosable illness such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia, whereas disordered eating can be anything from restricting certain foods, an obsession with “clean” eating or excessive exercise.
People with disordered eating or eating disorders experienced heightened symptoms during the pandemic. Isolation, less access to regular in-person treatment and additional stress, can enhance a disorder, Weber said. Often, those with a diagnosed disorder don’t want to eat around other people. Part of treatment is to eat with friends and family, a tactic that was harder to accomplish during the pandemic.
The pandemic didn’t negatively affect everyone’s weight, however. Weber and Raml said they’ve seen clients who used the lack of a commute in a vehicle and increased time at home to get outdoors more with their families. Some people lost weight in a manageable way by learning to cook healthy meals at home and participating in outdoor physical activities.
Raml and Weber encouraged anyone struggling with disordered eating or weight management to reach out for help with an expert. Weber said she often refers clients to counseling, and vice versa. They also advised taking a break from social media, which can be flooded with diet culture and exercise advertisements.