The “Quarantine 15”: Stress Eating in Lockdown Leads to Weight Gain

with our lives shaken up, many are turning to overeating to help with stress

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Stress-induced overeating during the pandemic is causing weight gain, Psychology Today reported. The strain of the sudden change to our schedules is taking its toll on mental health and waistlines alike. However, the link between stress and overeating is nothing new.

Large sandwich with woman mindlessly snacking on unhealthy food
During prolonged periods of acute stress, many people allow themselves to overindulge in eating as a way to relieve the feelings of stress. Photo by Flotsam / Shutterstock

If you’ve put on a few pounds during the coronavirus pandemic, you aren’t alone. A column in Psychology Today by Dr. Bryan E. Robinson said that lockdown weight gain is a common phenomenon. “What you eat during self-quarantine and sheltering in place during the COVID-19 pandemic can help you cope better or make your stress worse,” Dr. Robinson said. “Some are calling the 15-pound weight gain during self-isolation ‘Quarantine 15.'”

It’s no surprise stress eating is surging, since our routines have been so strongly upended, all of a sudden, and with no end in sight. However, stress and eating have a long history together—one that’s been studied for years.

Why We Overeat When Stressed

According to Dr. Robert Sapolsky, the John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn Professor of Biological Sciences at Stanford University and Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery in Stanford’s School of Medicine, about two-thirds of people eat more when they’re stressed out.

“A piece of what’s occurring is psychological—there’s a psychological component to this,” Dr. Sapolsky said. “It turns out those two-thirds of people have something in common, which is on a regular basis, when they’re eating a meal, they are consciously regulating the amount of food they take in. They’re watching their diet, they’re making sure they eat something healthy.

“They are passing on some dessert that is tempting, and along comes stress, and what happens is you say, ‘This is an incredibly stressful period—enough of that self-regulation; I am going to gorge.'”

He compared it to watching a low-key British period drama all day then wanting to change the channel to something like pro wrestling or a roller derby. The two-thirds of people who overeat when stressed have a psychological make-up that says, “We’ve been taking care of ourselves and now we’re stressed; it’s time for a treat.”

Chronic Stress and Overeating

Dr. Sapolsky said that when we have lives that are full of stress, we make the mistake of thinking that we’re stressed every waking moment of our lives. The reality of the situation is different, especially when it comes to our body’s stress-response system.

“In an everyday sense when we say, ‘Oh my God; I’m just stressed all the time,’ what we actually mean is we turn on the stress-response over and over repeatedly throughout the day,” he said. “The car that almost doesn’t start, and then the horrible traffic, then the sneaking into work 10 minutes late without the boss seeing—what we call every chronic stress is instead lots and lots of intermittent stressors.”

When this happens, Dr. Sapolsky said, even though our stress-response systems may be activated quickly and they only stay on for a brief period of time, we have an increased appetite during those times.

“We’re talking about these brief, intermittent stressors, and the amount of time it takes to recover—where your appetite is stimulated—is longer. In other words, if you spend all day long having these bursts of intermittent stressors, you are spending a lot of all day long recovering from them with your appetite increased, and suddenly you have chronic stress increasing [your] appetite.”

During the coronavirus pandemic, the stressors we face are quite clear. A drastically new routine, transitioning to working from home or facing unemployment, kids suddenly out of school indefinitely, and so on. It’s little wonder so many have gained the Quarantine 15.

Dr. Robert Sapolsky is contributed to this article. Dr. Sapolsky is John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn Professor of Biological Sciences at Stanford University and Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery in Stanford’s School of Medicine. Professor Sapolsky earned his A.B. summa cum laude in Biological Anthropology from Harvard University and his Ph.D. in Neuroendocrinology from The Rockefeller University in New York.