FSU researchers find the ‘quarantine 15’ weight gain might just be in your head

Psychology Professor Pam Keel says weight is a convenient place for people to put their worries during times of heightened stress.
Psychology Professor Pamela K. Keel says weight is a convenient place for people to put their worries during times of heightened stress.

After months in pandemic quarantine you might think you’ve gained weight or put on the ‘quarantine 15′ but a study by a Florida State University researcher shows that your perception might not match reality. 

In a study published by the International Journal of Eating Disorders, Distinguished Research Professor of Psychology Pamela Keel gathered information on changes in weight and weight perceptions from a sample of college students from January to April 2020.

The study, “Gaining ‘The Quarantine 15: Perceived versus observed weight changes in college students in the wake of COVID-19, used reported weight and a five-part scale in which weight ranged from very underweight to very overweight. Keel said participants were far more likely to believe they had gained weight, even when they hadn’t.  

“We found that one in 50 participants had a change in body mass that would change their weight category, about 2 percent of people,” she said. “But 10 percent five times as many people— described their weight as higher. Some people lost weight, a very few gained, but the vast majority stayed the same.”

The study found that participants’ wieght concerns “in the absence of any measurable weight gain” during quarantine led to other anxieties. 

Our participants believed they had gained weight and that increased their concerns about their eating and increased their concerns about their weight,” she said, adding that such concerns can have serious consequences. “That can set people up to engage in risky behaviors, like extreme dieting, juice cleanses, fasting, excessive exercise and other compulsions around eating and exercising.”

As to what might be causing people to falsely perceive they gained weight, Keel said weight is often a convenient place for people to place their worries, especially during times of heightened stress over a threat they can’t control – like the current pandemic. 

They are funneling that distress into something they believe they can control and weight is a great punching bag for people,” she said. “That’s grounded in the diet and weight-obsessed culture and the constant promise that it’s just readily in someone’s grasp to change the way they feel by changing the way they look.” 

CDC warnings that the risk of severe illness or death is greater in those with elevated body weight can also contribute to increased worries about weight gain, according to Keel.

Keel recommended people use objective measures instead of subjective feelings to evaluate the effects of the pandemic on their weight and to talk to their doctor if they have concerns about their health. 

Keel authored the study with FSU research assistant Marielle Gomez; graduate students Lauren Harris, and Grace Kennedy; Assistant Professor of Psychology Jessica Ribeiro; and Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor of Psychology Thomas E. Joiner.

For more information, visit https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32856752/.