It was bound to happen. In a culture that often mistakes fitness for the gap between one’s thighs, it’s no surprise that people who gained weight during the COVID-19 pandemic became the target of a lecture about eating too many empty calories.
This week, Jane Brody, the New York Times’ longtime personal health columnist, wrote a scornful article about pandemic weight gain. Brody seemingly aimed to inform readers that their body weight — and thus their dietary indulgences — could put them at greater risk for worse COVID-19 outcomes. In general, it’s helpful for people to understand the connection between their underlying health conditions and COVID-19. But this wasn’t gentle or empathetic explanatory reporting.
Instead, it amounted to a harsh judgment that played into discriminatory stereotypes about obesity and ignored a range of complex factors linked to weight gain. Rather than reach an audience of readers concerned about their physical health, the piece offers permission for people to treat those who’ve gained weight during the pandemic with disdain.
Brody, commenting on the home baking phenomenon that defined the early days of the pandemic, had this to say: “While I understood their need to relieve stress, feel productive and perhaps help others less able or so inclined, bread, muffins and cookies were not the most wholesome products that might have emerged from pandemic kitchens.”
That baked goods even emerged from pandemic kitchens is something of a miracle. Housing and food insecurity spiked last year, disproportionately affecting Black, Latino, and Indigenous people, and leaving many pantries empty. Parents, beleaguered by work and caretaking obligations, could’ve just left a loaf of bread on the counter and let their kids fight over the peanut butter and jam. Anyone experiencing a normal response to the sudden trauma could’ve sat stunned at their kitchen table, too depressed to crack open a cookbook.
Now is not the time to shame people for finding joy, sustenance, or relief in what they’ve baked or eaten during the pandemic.
Now is not the time to shame people for finding joy, sustenance, or relief in what they’ve baked or eaten during the pandemic. Instead, let us try saying: People ate well, they ate happily, they ate at all.
In order to make her case that too many Americans have let loose, Brody cites a recent survey from the American Psychological Association in which 42 percent of respondents reported gaining more weight than they intended. Those participants said they’d gained an average of 29 pounds. This data point also caught my attention last week when I discussed the survey with Dr. Vaile Wright, a psychologist and senior director of health care innovation at the APA, for a story about mental health and internet use during the pandemic.
When I asked Dr. Wright why the APA had chosen to focus on weight gain (among other health indicators like sleep and alcohol consumption) at a time when people are trying to cope with a deadly pandemic and disastrous government failures, she chose not to lecture or fear monger.
“When we start to feel overwhelmed it can be really hard to identify what’s actually in our control: how we eat, sleep, how active we are, substances [we use],” she said.
Dr. Wright described a compassionate approach to helping people spot these patterns so that they can take manageable steps toward reclaiming that sense of control. Notice that Dr. Wright framed weight gain not as a matter of willpower — a trope commonly used against people who weigh more as evidence of their personal failings — but as one sign of many that something may be amiss in how people are responding to chronic stress. She also noted that structural remedies, including stimulus checks and continued federal unemployment support, would significantly improve people’s ability to cope. Brody, on the other hand, celebrated her “portion-controlled” snacks and ice cream as an example to follow.
When weight gain is leveraged to shame people into perceived dietary prudence, it becomes a crass way of avoiding a more complex conversation about holistic wellness. Sleep and weight, for example, are tied together in ways we still don’t fully understand. Sleeping too little may increase hunger and appetite, particularly for carbohydrates (think pandemic baked goods). Similarly, research has found that experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder is associated with an increased risk in become overweight or obese for women. Increases in insomnia and traumatic stress symptoms have been well-documented over the past year.
Meanwhile, Brody only briefly mentions the structural factors that influence people’s dietary choices. She acknowledges that government subsidies for soybeans and corn play a role in the production of unhealthy and tempting fast and processed foods, making certain calories cheaper than others. By contrast, there’s no such support for fruits and vegetables.
Yet, we also know that food deserts are more prevalent in neighborhoods with higher poverty and unemployment rates. The same is true in less dense urban communities where residents are people of color. Research suggests that access to healthy food, in addition to other health inequities like exposure to chronic stress and institutionalized racism, may be linked to obesity rates in certain populations. Social determinants of health, or the many social, economic, and structural circumstances that shape people’s lives, arguably play a much larger role in their weight compared to what they ate during a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic.
Great so when do we get a society in which people work jobs that pay a living wage and don’t experience structural inequities that drive chronic health disparities.
— Rebecca Ruiz (@rebecca_ruiz) March 16, 2021
For many, food is about family and community, both of which were taken away from people overnight, and without warning. Whether people spent their last dollars on fast food as a treat for their kids or baked lasagnes for themselves and their neighbors, they shouldn’t feel guilty now. If they chose to support small businesses and their employees by ordering from restaurants more frequently, they shouldn’t be lectured for gaining a few pounds. Those who baked until they could bake no more should feel fulfilled by their creativity and the sense of mastery they gained. If people want to lose the weight they gained, they should feel empowered to do so, rather than scared and shamed into submission.
If the government and public health officials want to address the long-term risks of pandemic weight gain, let them take responsibility for creating a society that eliminates health inequities associated with obesity. Let them guarantee living-wage jobs that make nutrient-rich calories affordable, and build public spaces so that everyone can exercise safely. Have them pressure companies to prioritize employee well-being so that workers have the time and energy for physical activity. After all that people have endured in the past year, it’s unacceptable to ignore the politics and economics that fundamentally shape how people feed themselves and their families.
Regardless of what someone ate or how many pounds they gained during the pandemic, there’s no defense for shaming people under the pretense of preaching healthy living.