Managing Lockdown Weight Gain: Understanding the ‘Fat Brake’ Phenomenon

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If your clothes feel rich after you lock them, you’re not alone. A survey of more than 22,000 people in 30 countries found nearly one-third of respondents had gained weight during the COVID crisis.

The main features include stress, taking and working from home. Sound familiar?

As you gain more freedom of movement after closure, some of this extra weight can naturally come off. However, your body may need some exercise to get back to its pre-lockdown weight, and it’s probably better to do it now than to wait until New Year’s resolution time.


Read more: You don’t have to be super brutal to achieve weight loss success

Engage your inner ‘fat brake’

People tend to maintain a steady weight over time, give or take a few pounds.

Another scientific theory of how the body does this is the “set point” theory. It posits that whenever we deviate from our weight bearing position, our body activates defense mechanisms that tend to bring us back to base.

When your weight increases, your body may react by:

  • reducing hunger and the amount of food needed to feel satisfied, possibly brought about by changing appetite hormones
  • increasing your tendency to be physically active, which may include conscious activity like walking, or even unconscious activity like squatting
  • increasing your metabolic rate, a change that some people show more than others (you may notice that you feel hot under the collar if this happens to you).

This series of physiological responses, which we call the “fat brake” because it slows down fat gain, was documented in studies where adults were overfed for a period of several hours to several weeks. This time frame is similar to the feast period during the holiday season.

More takeaways than usual contributed to the weight gain of the lockdown.

Basically, this means that after a short period of binge eating, you may find yourself less interested in food and wanting to move more than usual.

In other words, there is an opportunity where your body is likely to work alongside you in losing weight.


Read more: Why now is the best time to go on a diet, or the science of post-holiday weight loss

What happens if we eat too much for months?

Sydney’s most recent shutdown lasted nearly four months (107 days). Melbourne’s closure was more fractious, but not short on time.

It is not entirely clear how our bodies react to this length of possible overeating. This is because most human overeating studies do not last more than two months.

One of the longest is a classic study where “thin guys” were fed 4,200 calories (1,000 calories) a day for 100 days. Finally, their metabolism rate was found to be higher than before the start of the overdose.

Importantly, four months after the test, they lost 82% of the weight and 74% of the fat they had gained.

These results are encouraging because they suggest that the “fat brake” can remain active even after several months of overeating.

A young man walks in front of a purple house.
A study of lean young men found that they lost the most weight they gained.

All things, however, come to an end. In animal studies, the effects of fat brake have been shown to diminish over time.

We can’t predict when this will happen in humans, but we do know that genetics play a big role in determining how our bodies react to overeating.

We also know that most weight loss is often permanent in children and young adults, which may be related to a variable weight set point.

Therefore, the aforementioned research on “skinny guys” probably presents the best scenario in terms of long-term diet recovery.

For those of us who don’t have genetics or age on our side, being proactive about post-lock weight loss and seizing the opportunity we have with fat brakes can provide a path of least resistance, at least from a fitness standpoint.

How to lose weight from COVID

It is important to listen to your body’s signals. Eat only when you are hungry and stop immediately when you are full.

If you are hungry, aim to eat small portions and snacks. One way to do this at mealtimes is to prioritize and “fill up” on vegetables before eating any other food on your plate. You might be surprised how little it takes to feel satisfied, especially when your fat brake is activated.


Read more: Health Check: how to find out how much food you should be eating

If you have an iPhone, a free app (Wink by Amanda Salis) can help you learn to eat according to your body’s signals.

The Australian Dietary Guidelines provide evidence-based information on what foods you should eat and how much you should eat. For more personalized information, this free quiz gives you a quick assessment of your diet and tailored ideas for improvements.

To avoid eating when you are not hungry, it helps to do things that are active and enjoyable. Think about group sports, dancing, or other activities that you couldn’t do while you were off.

It’s also a good idea to remove snacks and temptations from the house to reduce “nonsensical” grazing.

If you have more than a few pounds of COVID-19, consider professional help. Young people supported by a dietitian are more likely to lose weight than older adults who seek the same help.

For adults with related medical problems that can improve with weight loss, there are more effective treatments that work well for most people, such as a very restricted liquid diet that replaces liquid food but this should be done under the supervision of a physician.


Read more: Are you worried about overeating? Here’s what you need to know about food addiction

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