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

About 42% of U.S. adults say they have gained more weight than they intended since the start of the pandemic, according to a recent survey by the American Psychological Association.

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.”

We all get the urge to make dramatic life changes in the New Year, especially if there’s a new diet that is all the rage with your family, friends and celebrities.

Yet Francis cautions that we should look for the following diet ”red flags” that are more about making money and less about benefitting your health:

  • Promises of a quick fix, such as you can lose 20 pounds in a month. “It’s not healthy, and it’s probably not even possible,” Francis says.
  • Playing off your fear of body image or illness. For example, be wary of claims that you can stop diabetes with a diet or boost your immunity.
  • Before and after pictures and success stories of double-digit weight loss.
  • Research based on simple conclusions or single studies with small sample sizes. “In the nutrition and health community, we are moving toward evidence-based practice, so our recommendations aren’t based on one or two studies. We’re looking at the collective body of evidence.”
  • Fitness programs that sell supplements promising to help you lose weight.
  • Anything on Facebook or social media that lists “good” vs. “bad” foods.

Francis stresses that every food fits into a healthy diet. We shouldn’t cut out entire food groups – such as carbohydrates, 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, Francis says.

If your goal is to eat healthier in the New Year, then follow the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “MyPlate” healthy eating plan. Specifically, fill one-half your plate with fruits and vegetables (canned, frozen or fresh are all healthy choices, Francis says).

Iowa State University Extension and Outreach also recommends choosing from three different food groups (fruits and vegetables, dairy, meat or protein, and whole grains) when meal planning, Francis says.

“Choosing a variety of foods will help you diversify the nutrition that you’re getting at every meal. And that’s important,” Francis  says.

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.

For example, find time to plan healthy meals at home, or take a 10-minute walk every day, Francis recommends.

And 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.

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