I’m embarrassed to admit this, but after working from home for 16 months during the pandemic, one of my worries when I returned to the office was if I would look different to my colleagues.

Not only did I earn a few more gray hairs, but I also gained a few more pounds. In fact, I had to buy new jeans that fit so I could feel comfortable working in the office again.

Drastic changes in daily habits, comfort eating and high stress levels all contributed to weight gain (or loss) for many of us during the pandemic, health experts say.

Believe me, while it’s tempting to find a quick fix to reach a desired weight, restrictive diets aren’t sustainable and won’t improve your lifelong health, explains Sarah Francis, associate professor of food science and human nutrition at Iowa State University.

“The most important thing to remember is that body size does not affect your work,” Francis says. “We get fixated on weight. However, there are many factors that influence weight – some that we can control and others that we can’t. Ultimately, the main thing for everyone to remember is that all foods fit (in a healthy diet) with moderation.”

Francis stresses that we shouldn’t cut out entire food groups – such as carbohydrates, fruit, real meat or dairy - to lose weight.

“You need to eat a variety of foods because of the nutrients they provide – the vitamins and minerals, the macronutrients,” Francis says.

Real meat, in particular, is an excellent source of zinc, iron and protein, essential micronutrients that support a healthy immune system and help us retain muscle mass as we age.

If your goal is to eat healthier in the New Year, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach recommends choosing from three different food groups (fruits and vegetables, dairy, protein and whole grains) when meal planning.

In addition, Francis says we should reframe our thinking about health and well-being, especially given the lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“You know, I struggle myself sometimes to wrap my head around that, but we need to remember that your worth isn’t depending on if you’re a size 4 or if you’re a size 40. The main goal for everyone should not be a number on the scale. It should be how we feel,” Francis says.

“So are you feeling energetic? Or are you pain free? Do you feel supported? Do you feel satisfied? And if you’re not feeling those things, then you know to look internally to see what things I could change. What things do I have control over?” Francis adds.

As we return to the office, take advantage of your workplace’s Employee Assistance Program, where available, if you’re experiencing stress or struggling with disordered eating or negative body image, Francis says.

“It will be very beneficial to work with any food issues that you may have, because if you’re very restrictive, then you view foods through a black-and-white lens, like is it good or bad. And there are options for learning how to re-eat and to not view food as the enemy,” Francis says.

And if you’re like me, and you feel insecure about pandemic weight gain, especially as you return to the office, it’s OK to give yourself permission to buy new clothes that fit.

“Buy clothes that make you feel confident, because that will boost your mood,” Francis says. “You don’t have to feel self-conscious because people don’t care what size clothes you wear. It’s just nice to see people again.”