Maybe it was the frozen pizza. Or the cheesy snack crackers she thoughtlessly nibbled on last year while working from home. Or those damn cookies.
Whatever the reason, Jessica Short stepped on the scales this spring and found she was 25 pounds heavier than she was before the pandemic.
"I had to leave the house for several days in a row and then found that none of my pants would fit," said Ms. Short, a 39-year-old conservation program assistant in Lansing, Michigan. She was determined not to buy a brand new one. Ms. Short signed up for her first weight loss program in early April. She was down five pounds in three weeks using the Noom app. "My goal is to lose the whole 25 pounds," she added.
While some spent the year of the pandemic preparing healthy meals or riding their pelotons for hours, many others managed their anxiety and boredom with less healthy means. They spent the pandemic sitting on their couches, wearing baggy tracksuits, drinking chardonnay and eating cheetos.
Now that the weather is warming across the country and people are returning from their homes to the public or to offices, many are trying to shed their pandemic pounds.
The desire to lose that weight is the profit of the diet industry. In the past few weeks and months, companies selling weight loss plans have seen a surge in new business.
Privately owned Noom, which offers bespoke health plans for its app starting at $ 59 a month, has found that app has been downloaded nearly four million times in the US over the past year. This makes it one of the most downloaded health and fitness apps on Apptopia. Similarly, WW International, formerly known as Weight Watchers, reported that access to many of its studios around the world was restricted for much of the past year. There were 4.2 million digital subscribers last week, up 16 percent from last year.
And publicly traded Medifast, which runs a coaching and meal replacement plan called Optavia, predicted last week that its sales this year would exceed $ 1.4 billion, doubling from 2019. Demand is so high that customers are reporting delays in their orders on eBay, the lack of popular groceries and bidding wars for out-of-stock snacks has emerged. A batch of 10 Optavia Sweet Blueberry Biscuits that sold for $ 99 on eBay last week, for example, and 14 packets of Caramel Macchiato Shakes for $ 94.
While the body positivity movement has gained momentum and much of the diet industry has been badly hit by the pandemic last year, it's still a $ 61 billion machine worth millions every year, according to analytics firm Research and Markets of Americans attracts.
Many of these companies shy away from using the dreaded four-letter word – diet – to describe what they sell and instead rely on updated phrases like "health" and "wellness" to promote their programs.
"We see in Covid an acceleration of the trends in health and wellbeing that already existed and will continue for a long time, and we believe that the desire for a healthier lifestyle and prioritization of one's own health is permanent," said a spokeswoman for Noom in a statement.
It is clear that numerous people gained weight during the pandemic. A small study of people placed under protection found that they gained more than half a pound every 10 days. If they continued to live like they were under lockdown conditions, they could have gained £ 20 over the course of the year, concluded the authors of the study, published in the peer-reviewed JAMA Network Open in March.
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May 11, 2021 at 1:13 p.m. ET
However, critics of many popular weight loss programs note that while people are likely to lose weight if they follow the strict guidelines of meal replacement plans, for many that weight will return at some point.
"For example, if you have a wedding two weeks from now, a meal replacement program can help," said Dr. Susan Roberts, Professor of Nutrition in the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University and Professor of Psychiatry in the University's School of Medicine. "The problem is, people don't learn how to eat by the end of the program, so weight gain is quite common."
Dr. Roberts developed her own weight loss diet called the Instinct Diet, which aims to retrain people's brains on food. She claims that the participants in her plan achieve weight loss by reducing hunger and unhealthy cravings.
Despite the criticism, many people emerging from the pandemic and preparing to re-enter the world are turning to the diet industry for help.
After spending much of the past year in her Austin, Texas apartment, she was studying for her Ph.D. Brenda Olmos, 31, at the University of Oklahoma realized that the steady stream of takeaway food and snacks she had eaten had resulted in an additional 15 pounds. She signed up for the Optavia plan in early April and quickly lost 4.5 pounds.
"I tried to fast intermittently and I couldn't stop thinking about food because I couldn't have it," said Ms. Olmos. "I tried keto but I couldn't stop thinking about carbs. I give myself six months to lose 30 pounds."
Likewise, Stacey Moskowitz, a 57-year-old retired elementary school teacher from New City, New York, said she had tried many other diets over the years.
"I would lose the weight and then it would go back inches," she said. "I've exercised a lot and lost some weight, but not as much for the exertion I put in."
She was concerned about her general health after contracting Covid-19 in late February 2020. When she put on weight again last fall, Ms. Moskowitz decided to give Optavia a try. She has since lost 37 pounds and is hoping to drop another 20-25 pounds.
"It's not about looking a certain way or wearing a certain outfit," she said. "I'm not going to wear a bikini. It's about my health."
Ms. Moskowitz said there was a problem with the Optavia program: it had become so popular that the company was struggling to fulfill orders.
“I had a special shake, the Tropical Fruit Smoothie, which I liked. I had it for a month and now it's gone, ”Ms. Moskowitz said, noting that she has become addicted to the program, which costs $ 400 a month and offers five of her six meals a day. "You order every month and it takes two weeks to get the order. And I know some people order and hoard extra food because they fear they won't get their next order on time."
Last week, Medifast executives told Wall Street analysts they were hoping to expand manufacturing by the end of the second quarter and sales by the end of the third quarter to meet demand.
"I am very happy with the program," said Ms. Moskowitz. "But I'm very nervous about whether I will get my next order on time."