How the Pandemic Is Motivating Me to Get Healthy

  • The American Psychological Association reports that 27 percent of U.S. adults say they eat to manage stress.
  • Family history, gestational diabetes, and prediabetes are risk factors for developing type 2 diabetes.
  • Young Americans who are overweight and living with health conditions like diabetes have an increased risk for complications from COVID-19.

For most of my life, I didn’t weigh myself. That wasn’t a conscious choice, just something I never felt the need to do.

At 5-foot-3, I maintained my shorter stature by staying active. I took dance classes through eighth grade and played softball and basketball, both of which I continued to play through college as well as recreationally into my late 20s.

However, 6 months ago, at 42 years old, I found myself overweight. A year before that, my primary care doctor informed me that my fasting glucose level was 104, which means I have prediabetes.

The extra pounds showed up over about a 10-year period.

In 2011, my dad died from type 2 diabetes complications, a condition he developed in his mid-40s. From there, I turned to intense emotional eating as a way to cope.

Cookies, cakes, pasta: All became my clutch to lean on when the sadness of losing my father and mother (who passed away 4 years previously) became too much to bear while raising two young children.

This isn’t an excuse. Rather, it’s an observation through self-reflection.

I realize now that I was always an emotional eater. In fact, it’s a behavior my dad and I shared. We’d celebrate the good times and the bad with treats and dining out at our favorite restaurants.

Our behavior turned into a habit, which the American Psychological Association (APA) reports isn’t all that unusual.

According to the APA, 27 percent of adults say they eat to manage stress. Moreover, 34 percent of those who report overeating or eating unhealthy foods because of stress believe their behavior is a habit.

“Food has been a calmer and soother and source of security since the minute we were born. The minute we started crying as babies and our parents fed us, it got complicated,” Molly Carmel, an eating disorders therapist and author of “Breaking Up with Sugar,” told Healthline.

Carmel says the biochemical qualities of food, especially sugar, help flood chemicals into our brains and light up pathways that make us feel good.

“So, when we are stressed, we’d love to feel different, and food truly helps to do that,” Carmel said.

Family history and risk play a part

The genetic risk of type 2 diabetes is complex, and family history helps identify those at increased risk, says Dr. Karl Nadolsky, spokesperson for the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists (AACE) and clinical endocrinologist at Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

“Certainly, a patient diagnosed with T2DM [type 2 diabetes mellitus] at age 40 puts his children at increased risk. Having a first degree relative with T2DM is indication for screening in adults,” Nadolsky told Healthline.

He also explains that having gestational diabetes significantly predicts future risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

During both of my pregnancies, I developed gestational diabetes despite being a moderate weight.

According to research, that makes me 10 times more likely to develop diabetes within 10 years of my pregnancies than women who didn’t have gestational diabetes.

“[Gestational diabetes] is also an indication, along with prediabetes, for intensive lifestyle intervention (i.e., diabetes prevention program) to prevent T2DM. Recurrent [gestational diabetes] may predict higher risk of T2DM, but likely more related to the adiposity-based risk factors in those patients,” Nadolsky said.

“It is feasible that recurrent episodes of worsened insulin resistance due to recurrent [gestational diabetes] place high demands on the pancreas and contribute to an eventual decline in beta cell function that leads to type 2 diabetes in high-risk individuals,” Nadolsky said.

Treatment for prediabetes includes intensive lifestyle management, explains Dr. Scott Isaacs, spokesperson for the AACE and medical director of Atlanta Endocrine Associates.

“Therapeutic lifestyle management includes medical nutrition therapy (the reduction and modification of caloric and saturated/hydrogenated fat intake to achieve weight loss in individuals who are overweight or obese), appropriately prescribed physical activity, avoidance of tobacco products, adequate quantity and quality of sleep, limited alcohol consumption, and stress reduction,” Isaacs told Healthline.

However, knowing all of this is one thing. Doing something about it is another.

For years, I took preventive measures for my breast cancer risk. My mom was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer when she was 35, the same age her mother was diagnosed and younger sister would be diagnosed, too.

Because of this, in the early 2000s, my OB-GYN recommended I get mammograms every year starting 10 years before the age my mother was when she got her diagnosis. Once I turned 25, I began diligently getting mammograms.

Weeks before my mom died from breast cancer in 2007, she underwent genetic testing and discovered she carried the BRCA2 gene mutation.

In 2010, I received the test, learning that I’m not a carrier. This information means I have the same risk for developing breast cancer as other women who don’t carry the gene.

While facing my breast cancer risk felt more daunting than facing my diabetes risk, I did it. Yet, in my 20s and 30s, I still wasn’t willing to take the steps needed to reduce my risk for developing diabetes.

Finally, at 42, I was ready.

A month before my youngest child’s 10th birthday this January, I made a promise to myself that I would try to beat the odds and my family history.

I joined a weight loss program (Weight Watchers) in December and began losing weight. I was on a roll and proud of myself.

Then the pandemic hit.

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Writer Cathy Cassata (above) making daily exercise a part of her morning routine. Image via Cathy Cassata

A new spark of motivation

As physical distancing, job loss, and death set in, and stress and uncertainty made its way into our lives, I feared that eating would be my coping mechanism yet again, especially being stuck in the house.

Instead, something surprising happened.

I motivated myself in positive ways: I told myself I’d come this far, that I had made good food choices during the business of life. Exercising had become a daily habit. I was feeling good and strong. There was no reason to stop. I deserved to be healthy.

I also practiced gratitude more intensely: thankful that my family has access to food, shelter, and healthcare; appreciative my husband and I can work from home; grateful for all the healthcare workers and researchers doing their part.

Most motivating, though, was learning that young Americans who are overweight and living with conditions like diabetes have a greater risk for complications from COVID-19 if they were to get it.

Nadolsky says people with both type 1 and type 2 diabetes are at risk for infections, including lung infections, partially related to glycemic control and immune dysfunction and inflammation.

“The risk of adverse outcomes from COVID-19 likely depends upon the severity of ‘obesity,’ based upon the complications due to obesity. Lung function is also suboptimal in obesity, including sleep apnea, along with increased inflammation putting the respiratory system at risk of failure,” he said.

Isaacs adds that people with type 2 diabetes often have coexisting chronic conditions, such as obesity, chronic kidney disease, congestive heart failure, and cardiovascular disease. All these conditions can increase the risk of complications from COVID-19.

Given my family history, prediabetes and gestational diabetes diagnoses, and weight gain, this information was a big wakeup call.

Not only did I want to stay on the path to health for my own good, but it became clear to me that doing so could help fight the larger public health crisis.

This became more at the forefront of my mind after I interviewed Dr. Bruce E. Hirsch, attending physician and assistant professor in the infectious disease division of Northwell Health in New York, for a Healthline story about the new coronavirus.

“If we were a healthier population, we’d be able to be more resilient to this and other types of infection problems. I believe the portion of people who would be critically ill and who consume vast amounts of attention and resources, who would be infectious and shed virus for longer periods of time, would be reduced,” Hirsch had said.

His words stay with me every time I want to get off track. Since February, I’ve lost more weight, and I plan to keep going.

Cathy Cassata is a freelance writer who specializes in stories about health, mental health, and human behavior. She has a knack for writing with emotion and connecting with readers in an insightful and engaging way. Read more of her work here.

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