71 Million Americans Gained Weight During Pandemic, Feel Down About It

|Updated Dec 16, 2020
Getty Images

A new survey reveals that 71 million Americans have gained weight throughout the pandemic, and worse, they feel bad about it, posing not only physical but emotional health issues. The survey found that 63 percent of Americans believe leading a healthy lifestyle is made tougher by the "at home" work and other hardships (stress, homeschooling, job loss) imposed on us during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the number one group has been mothers of young children. The survey, conducted by biotechnology company Gelesis, found that over half (52 percent) of Americans have been feeling down about the way they look during the pandemic, and 3 in 5 Americans are on a mission to lose weight.

The other half of the equation is that most people "feel down" about having gained weight, and the secondary mental health effects can be as devastating to our resilience and recovery to optimal health as the physical health effects; ultimately one's long term healthy outlook and ability to bounce back, is driven by our attitudes, which determine behavior, so staying upbeat and optimistic helps in our efforts to lead a healthy life, eating a mostly plant-based diet and getting quality sleep and daily exercise are all paramount to getting back on track in 2021.

“During the pandemic, almost a third of Americans are reporting weight gain. Unfortunately, there is a great deal of stigma around weight," says Elaine Chiquette, Ph.D. in Pharmacology and Gelesis’ Chief Scientific Officer, and the survey's lead author. "Overweight and obesity are not simply a case of faltering willpower. Weight is something millions of Americans struggle with and is the result of complex interactions between genetics, social, and environmental factors," she explained.

"Nearly three in five Americans, mostly women, are currently trying to lose weight during the pandemic.  Seventy-one percent of the people we surveyed said their weight impacts how they feel about their identity. Of those who gained weight, they report feeling less confident, more sad, stressed, and anxious. And they said they need more support, but feel alone in their journey.

"Diets naturally rich in fibers like fruits and vegetables are enormously important – that’s actually what inspired our hydrogel technology and why we took this biomimicry approach. Some people need more help when it comes to their diet. We want to make the support people need access to them.

"We want to break the barriers to getting help for people who want to manage their weight, whether that is seeking a treatment plan through your healthcare provider, trying a new evidence-based approach, engaging with a registered dietician, or another plan you think is right for you. At Gelesis, we are looking to empower people and healthcare providers alike to solve this very complex issue.”

Getty Images Getty Images

If You're One of the 71 Million Who Has Gained, Here's What to do About It:

1. Eat a healthy whole-food, plant-based diet, which is nutrient-dense and full of fiber. Try The VegStart Diet for healthy weight loss that is sustainable and learn a new way to eat for life.

2 Exercise more, and try to get over 30 minutes a day. If you sit for hours in back to back work meetings, try to get up from your desk between meetings, even for an 11-minute walk around the block 11 minutes is enough to counteract sitting for hours, a new study finds.

3. Prioritize stress relief and do things that bring you joy like dancing, cooking, watching The Crown, or other favorite TV show in the evenings, or taking cute pictures of your cat, whatever it is that brings you relaxation and respite from stress, either personal or caused by watching the news. Love to walk, bike or play with your dog? Do it daily, just so long as it makes you laugh, smile, and forget your stressors for a while.

The survey also found:

  • Americans are nearly as worried about gaining weight between now and the end of the year (53%) as they are about not being able to see family for the holidays (54%)
  • 40 million Americans who are trying to lose weight would give up social media for the rest of the year if it meant losing 10 pounds

The pandemic has been the catalyst for significant change in American lives, especially for those actively trying to lose weight. It has posed physical health and emotional health issues as well with 71% of Americans admitting that their weight impacts how they feel about their identity, particularly among women and parents. However, as the new year approaches, the survey also found that Americans are more determined than ever to lose weight and return to healthy habits.

The survey highlights the challenges of shedding unwanted pounds and the heightened insecurities for people who are on the quest to lose weight. The survey found 63% of Americans surveyed agree that healthy lifestyle habits are harder to keep in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, over half (52%) of Americans surveyed have been feeling down about the way they look during the pandemic, and nearly 3 in 5 Americans are on a mission to lose weight. In addition, the survey found:

  • 40 million Americans who are currently trying to lose weight would give up social media for the year if it meant being able to lose 10 or more pounds
  • Nearly a quarter (22%) of Americans trying to lose weight would give up sex for the rest of the year to lose 10 pounds
  • Don’t take away their Netflix. In a year with limited entertainment or social options, only 17% said they would be willing to give up their favorite TV or streaming service
  • Nearly three in five Americans (58%) say they need more support to lose weight, and 42% don’t feel their health care provider helps enough with their weight loss goals
  • 148 million Americans would be open to trying a naturally derived weight loss aid to support them in their journey
  • 116 million Americans who have tried losing weight agree the weight loss journey itself is almost as miserable as being overweight. Their biggest hurdles: the cost of healthy foods, lack of time, eating in moderation, and being deterred by slow results

“While our survey has found Americans have been motivated to develop healthier habits amidst the pandemic, it has also brought to light how many Americans who want to lose weight continue to struggle,” said Elaine Chiquette, Director of Pharmacy and Gelesis’ Chief Scientific Officer. “In a year when we’ve all already given up so much, our data shows that people would give up even more if it meant being able to lose weight by the end of the year and they remain hopeful about losing weight and feeling healthy in 2021.”

Women and moms bear the brunt of weight gain woes

Weight gain is a universal issue, but during the pandemic, its side effects have hit women and moms in particular harder than men.

  • Women with kids are more likely to say other priorities getting in the way is a barrier to living a healthy lifestyle amidst the pandemic (30% vs. 21%).
  • When thinking about the upcoming winter holidays, Millennial women (65%) are more likely than Gen X (47%) and Boomer+ (39%) women to be worried about feeling more stressed or anxious than they do now.
  • Women are more likely than men to report their weight gain during the pandemic has affected their wellness by making them feel anxious more often (39% vs. 26%).
  • 60% of women vs 44% of men report feeling down about the way they look.


Weight Gain Takes an Unseen Mental and Emotional Toll on Health

Adding to these challenges, mental stress and fatigue with weight gain are also taking a toll. Close to half (47%) of Americans who gained weight admit their self-esteem has decreased since March. Others find themselves feeling less motivated (50%), more stressed (41%), sad (36%) or anxious (33%) more often. Over two-fifths (41%) also report not being able to fit into their favorite clothes.

The pandemic has highlighted a profound shift in lifestyles and mental outlook: 63% of people found it harder to keep healthy lifestyle habits during the pandemic, 46% have not been feeling like their normal selves and 41% felt unable to take charge of their life. The impact of these dispositions is such that half of the people who have gained weight do not feel good about their health (50%) or their appearance (53%), since the pandemic began.

The Pandemic’s Silver Lining? Willingness to Try New Healthy Changes

The good news is that Americans were driven to make healthy lifestyle changes during the pandemic, even while many reported they were harder to keep (63%).

  • More than 3 in 5 (61%) felt pressure in some sort of way to get healthier and improve their lifestyle habits over the past 6 months; and nearly two-thirds have been more motivated to develop healthy eating habits (64%) and healthy lifestyle habits (63%) as well.
  • Americans who are Hispanic (75%) are more likely than those who are Black (61%) or White (55%) to have felt pressure to get healthier and improve their lifestyle habits over the past 6 months.
  • Many have put these into practice with about half of Americans (51%) cooking at home more often and (50%) drinking more water.
  • About 8% have also tried a meal delivery service.
  • The focus on mealtime has had tangential effects with nearly a third of Americans report having enjoyed more meals sitting down with their family.
  • Health habits adopted during the pandemic include 3 in 10 Americans being more active (31%), working out more frequently (29%), nearly a quarter having developed a new morning routine (22%), while others are making it a point to manage their finances (21%), take up a new hobby (18%), meditate (13%) journal (9%) and steer clear of their screens (8%).

Looking Forward to a Healthier and Brighter 2021

While in the immediate, Americans are worried about gaining weight during the upcoming holiday (53%) – women more likely (59%) than men (47%) – wellness goals are top of mind for millions of Americans as they look ahead to the new year. Sixty percent of respondents want to feel healthier and 51% hope to lose weight in 2021.“We have found that in 2021 the hopes of Americans outweigh their worries, and millions are ready to kick off the new year and make changes, including losing weight,” said Chiquette.