Will we come out of this fatter or thinner?

Will we come out of this fatter or thinner?
  • During a lockdown like this some factors actually encourage people to eat more healthily

Writer Alejandro Fernández Aldasoro recently summed up the situation in an amusing tweet: "Institutions that will lose relevance and authority after the crisis: the EU, the WHO and the UN. Institutions which will gain them: Naturhouse and Alcoholics Anonymous".

Since the lockdown began, there appears to have been a type of nutritional apocalypse from which we are all going to come out looking spherical, more or less the shape with which we usually portray coronavirus itself. Our present diet would give a nutritionist nightmares, an orgy of sugars and ready meals which we wash down with litres of soft drinks and even more litres of alcohol. Thank goodness this period of sedentarism will come to an end fairly soon, because otherwise we might not fit through the door.

It has to be said, however, that this enforced confinement involves a strange mixture of negative factors (the most obvious being the restriction on our movements) and others which could provide us with a healthier diet. If we surveyed our friends, we would almost undoubtedly find at least one who is losing kilos during the lockdown, rather than putting on weight. There are some very obvious reasons why we are not feeding ourselves properly: we are stuck indoors, often working at home five metres from the fridge, subject to the monotony and anguish caused by the tragedy around us and food can provide us with enjoyment and comfort in a situation as difficult as this.

However, there is another side to this. In some cases, our temptations have been taken away from us. For more than a month we have been unable to go to bars or restaurants, which for many people are the main diet-breakers, and we have all the time in the world to cook things like pulses, vegetables, or a paella, instead of quickly frying the first ready-made meal we come across. Food, suddenly, has become an event, which we plan in much more detail than before, and that can also result in more meticulous and sensible choices.

"This is a change of paradigm importance: we are very social, we like to go out for a few drinks, or to restaurants, and at home everything is different. Every gramme of alcohol has seven calories, and a glass of whatever our favourite tipple is will contain ten grammes of alcohol, and then when you add the mixer, the crisps, the tapa to go with it... people are starting to cook at home again now, and that is very important. Cooking is a way of protecting health, because in general what you make at home is healthier than the meals you buy or eat out," says Dr Francisco Botella, of the Spanish Endocrinology and Nutrition Society. But in his judgement, many people are not making the most of this opportunity to look after their diet and their health.

"We are seeing a deviation in shopping habits, towards items which have a longer expiry date and these tend to be processed foods, which is dangerous," he says.

Take the calamitous effect of sugary drinks, for example: "We are talking about 150 or 200 calories each, so if we have several a day... The 'light' options aren't as bad, but they are not recommended either because they are still keeping us accustomed to sweet things," he says.

This crisis is also making us more aware of certain aspects of our characters. For example, some people cope with the lockdown with little difficulty while others are climbing the walls, and the way we relate to food is reflected in our everyday routines at the moment.

"Everything is amplified. I don't think anyone is going to become an alcoholic if they happen to be drinking a bit more at the moment. And if you don't have an adequate emotional way of handling food under normal circumstances, that is also going to be intensified now," says Leila Pérez, a nutritionist at Vitha Vitoria, who is monitoring some patients from a distance to see what impact the lockdown is having on them.

"I have some people who are surprised that they have lost weight. One of their weak points is their social life, and because they don't have one now they are no longer drinking too much. With regard to cooking at home, the situation is the same for everybody, but everyone interprets it in their own way: some people are cooking heathy meals, while others are relying on things because they are 'really tasty'. It is important to control visual stimulants, all those delicious things that we see on the internet," she says.

Popping to the fridge

While some people, unable to go out to drink or eat, are getting used to a life of almost monastic simplicity, others are stuffing themselves with cakes and beers to make up for what they're missing.

"It's very easy to keep popping to the fridge or the food cupboard, and some people are using food as an escape, because it is something that gives us a lot of pleasure without involving much effort. In a situation like this, where everyone is worried, nervous and stressed, we tend to suffer from a type of emotional hunger. We embue food with a power which it doesn't really have and, far from solving our problems, it can make them worse," says Leila.

If we try to find an average for all these millions of individuals, what do the experts think? Are we going to come out of this coronavirus crisis fatter or thinner?

Francisco Botella isn't very optimistic. "It is estimated that we will come out of this between two and five kilos heavier. It is more difficult to change eating habits than it is to change religion or a football team to support, so we are going to notice the after-effects of a time when we stopped moving," he says.

Dr Pérez, on the other hand, says it is impossible to generalise. "It's obvious that many people will put on weight, but I wouldn't like to guess at a percentage or try to give a figure because it wouldn't be accurate enough. We are told that everyone will gain four or five kilos, like at Christmas, when we are always warned that we will end up three kilos heavier. But we don't know what's going to happen, because this isn't like a holiday and it isn't Christmas.

"There is something positive, however: many of us are thinking about our health during lockdown, and that is always a good thing."