How I Lost my “COVID Weight”

Unlike Drew Manning, I didn't gain weight in 2020 on purpose. I gained it because I am incredibly vulnerable to stress-induced weight gain and I wasn't prepared for the stressors of 2020. But here is how I lost it like a boss, getting back to “fit” with a well-executed plan.

The one other time in my life when I gained a lot of weight and lost it was in 2016, documented here, where I gained some 30 pounds in my first semester teaching at Brooklyn College — a result of the stress of moving, feeling completely behind with everything, and feeling like I started out with a completely different balance of teaching and research than I wanted but unable to express how I was feeling. Taking charge of those issues, negotiating with my department head, putting myself and my health first, and learning the principles of focusing on effectiveness from Tim Ferriss was what put me in the position to lose those 30 pounds.

More recently, after my 2020 surplus of “COVID weight,” the second major period of stress-induced weight gain in my life, I learned from my Self-Decode genetic analysis that I am one of 4% of the population with a variant in the gene for the cannabinoid receptor that might be the cause of my vulnerability to stress-induced weight gain. Although that knowledge has not led me to anything specific to change that vulnerability, it has given me perspective. My subjective sense is that stress is preeminent for me when managing my body composition; having a mechanistic explanation for this helps reinforce that feeling with a sense of objectivity, and helps support my focus and determination to give healthy stress management my top priority.

These “Fit2Fat2Fit” pictures, to borrow a phrase from Manning, show my transformation across the last three years:

Masterjohn Goes Fit2Fat2Fit

The first picture is from July 2018, shortly before I did a photo shoot that included some muscle shots where I look even better due to the lights and mirrors of the “flex box” I was in, as well as some strategic use of vodka for vasodilation. The second picture is from October of 2020, one week into my initial round of weight loss when I was three pounds down from my peak. The third picture is from this morning, right before I went to get a DEXA body composition scan to round out the data I needed for this post.

At my peak, I was 189.6 pounds. At my height of 5′ 7.5″ that made my BMI 29.3. I remember seeing a 190+ weight on one day that doesn't seem to have gotten recorded in the app (I use a Yunmai scale that imports the data to Apple Health). My app doesn't recognize that last half inch of height, so with some rounding error on the weight and BMI it had tricked me into thinking I was actually obese for one day of last year, but apparently I came just shy of that cutoff.

Currently, my weight fluctuates between 155 and 158 pounds. This keeps my BMI on the upper part of the normal range, but since I'm more muscular than average, I consider this a reasonable part of the normal range to hang out in. I have various measures of body fat suggesting 11%, 14.5%, or 20.5%, with the highest measure being most likely. I'll get to the measurements and my plans going forward, but first, how it all happened.

How I Almost Became Obese

At the end of 2019, I was feeling amazing and in a euphoric state of momentum on my book, with my finances giving me a green light that I could give finishing it my exclusive attention.

The beginning of 2020 marked a collision of events that turned that world upside down for me.

I got my first case of COVID at the beginning of February 2020 (most likely infected at the end of January), and it was the sickest I'd ever been in my life. This almost perfectly coincided with a major rearrangement in my personal life that required I make fundamental changes to how I was running my business. COVID then struck hard in March, and completely turned my finances upside down. I was forced into focusing all of my time on COVID research to keep my business afloat. I don't regret making that pivot, because I believe it was necessary and an important gift I was giving to the world in a time of need. However, it still rocked everything upside down for me.

My lease expired in April and I executed a longstanding plan to move, which set me behind further and added additional stress.

The gym had been a central part of my daily routine that held together my fitness routine and centered me on my physical practice; closing the gyms took that away from me. Although I'm an introvert, the social isolation of 2020 was still too much for me.

On top of all of this, I later realized, in retrospect, that aspects of my personal life were taking me slowly into directions that conflicted with my core values in ways that I wasn't able to think through clearly or express at that time. In a way, this stifling of my self-expression mirrored the way I carried my unexpressed feelings in my bodyfat during my first period of stress-induced weight gain when I had trouble expressing my dissatisfaction with how my work requirements were arranged.

During this time I could feel that I was under deep psychological stress. I knew the year was going to be extremely stressful. I made the choice to allow myself to gain some extra weight, to draw some extra comfort from food, and to stop watching my weight so closely.

However, I had no idea that it had gone so far until later in the year. Because I stopped watching my weight so closely, and because I was so focused on making sure my business survived, it got out of control without me realizing it.

How I Lost the First 15 Pounds

One of the most important things that happened for me to begin losing the weight was the opening of the gyms, which began at the end of August 2020, and in my neighborhood began in September. This isn't because I couldn't exercise outside of the gym. It's because of the psychological impact of no longer feeling trapped in my apartment with my only escape to go on a road trip, and because the gym has always been an easy tool for me to center my physical practice on. By late October, I had established a very well-centered physical practice once again.

My peak weight was October 24, 2020, at 189.6 lb. By January 3, 2021, I had gotten this down to 174.9. I thus lost about 15 pounds over two months, mostly in November and December.

I was particularly impressed with myself for continuing my weight loss through the holidays!

Here's what I did.

I wanted to pursue what I call the low-hanging fruit of weight loss. Institute a few simple rules of thumb that don't require any kind of complicated tracking.

Here were my rules:

  • Eat a well-salted, skinless, boneless chicken breast at each meal.
  • Every meal has to be only that, except dinner.
  • If I am gaining weight or failing to lose weight, eat fewer meals. Stabilize my number of meals once I'm losing weight and keep it there until I stop losing weight.
  • At dinner, eat a full but not heaping plate of food, where all the room on the plate besides the chicken breast is taken up by low-carb veggies, cooked without any oil.
  • At dinner on workout days, I replaced half the veggies with rice.

The weight came off. I slept well. That was the end of it.

My nutrition was not optimal at that time. This was a temporary weight loss diet, so it wasn't optimized for nutrient density. I believe making that compromise was the right choice at the time.

Once January rolled around, I felt exhausted. It was hard for me to keep losing weight, but staying on the diet no longer felt easy. So, I switched to eating balanced meals with a focus on maintaining my weight loss. If I noticed I was gaining weight, I cut down my food intake. If I was weight stable, I continued that food intake. Rather than tracking calories, I just focused on the average volume of food I was eating over time. Since the composition of my diet was very similar day-in day-out, eyeballing the portion sizes and course-correcting where necessary worked well for me at that time.

Trying to Make the Next 20 Pounds Easy

After a couple of months of maintaining my weight loss, I felt motivated to lose more weight. However, the idea of using my original diet was exhausting, and I wanted an approach that could allow me a broader choice of foods.

I tried calorie-tracking the way I did in 2016, but it didn't work the same. One of my reasons for calorie-tracking the first time around is that I have trouble sleeping if I don't eat enough food. My appetite is precise enough to keep my weight stable on average on a weekly scale, but it isn't precise enough to stop me from having insomnia on a daily scale. This at times leads me to bias myself toward slightly overeating to ensure I can sleep, which leads to very slow but steady fat gain over time, and its a major wrench in the wheels of any fat loss effort I make. This time around, however, I just couldn't find any particular caloric intake that would lead to consistent weight loss yet allow me to sleep well.

In reviewing my weight data, I came across a major insight. The first 18 pounds of my weight gain started the week I moved, at a rate of 6 pounds per week over the first three weeks!

At first, this led me to environmental hypotheses. Was past pesticide spraying in the apartment wrecking my hormones? Was there a mold problem I didn't know about? Was the water quality in my new neighborhood any different?

However, this was also perfectly consistent with the stress hypothesis. Reflecting on my past experience with weight gain and my Self-Decode results, the stress hypothesis was very strongly supported.

I ran thorough hormone tests. My thyroid looked fantastic. My estrogen was highish, my testosterone lowish, and my morning serum cortisol high out of the reference range. A DUTCH test showed my cortisol was especially high in the morning and then crashed precipitously, consistent with mid-day fatigue I was having at that time. My total cortisol production was high, but for much of the day my cortisol levels were bottomed out.

All this hormone testing did was open a number of chicken-and-egg questions. I documented much of my research into these questions on Twitter. The estrogen-to-testosterone ratio and even the cortisol could easily be explained by the excess bodyfat. On the other hand, estrogen itself can make it harder for men to lose fat. The estrogen could be elevated by the bodyfat, but it could also be elevated by environmental endocrine disruptors, or even cortisol induced by stress.

So did this point to the environment? Did it point to stress?

Did it suggest my easy way out was to find an natural herb with aromatase-inhibiting properties that would lower my estrogen and thereby help me lose weight more easily?

I couldn't find a single example of an aromatase-inhibiting herb that didn't also inhibit androgen receptors, and I knew no doctor in their right mind would give me a pharmaceutical aromatase inhibitor for this problem.

I decided that I had to stop searching for an easy way out. I could chase after an environmental cause for many months and it could well prove ultimately elusive. I could pursue some way of manipulating my hormones but it would likely take a lot of effort and come at the risk of serious side effects.

At the end of the day, the simplest hypothesis was that the excess bodyfat was the cause of all the hormonal imbalances and just losing the weight would help them normalize.

So, it was time to bite the bullet and cut my calories.

Putting In the Work

I still had to deal with the hunger-induced insomnia.

One thing the DUTCH test revealed was that my morning melatonin runs on the low side. It seemed plausible to me that on a low-calorie diet my melatonin runs deficient, so I decided to try 10 milligrams of melatonin a night.

It worked like a charm. I could eat however little I wanted and the melatonin would get me at least 6 hours of sleep every night.

I wound up dropping my food intake to what I am rather confident in retrospect was roughly 1000 Calories per day. On workout days, I allowed myself an extra 200-400 Calories in snacks.

From June 27 to July 13, my weight fell from 178.9 to 170.9. This was eight pounds in 16 days, or 0.5 pounds per day.

At this point, I caught COVID a second time. I would be very surprised if such a low calorie intake and such rapid weight loss didn't crush my immunity and directly contribute to that.

I was so determined to lose weight that I kept losing weight during my COVID case, which in hindsight probably made it much worse than it otherwise would have been (there were other things making it worse; for example, I had all kinds of work commitments I kept, and I was doing manual labor and so on). Still, it was ten times less severe than the first time. I will write about that experience separately.

From July 18 to August 1, I went from 170 pounds to 161.5 pounds. This is 8.5 pounds over 14 days, or 0.6 pounds per day.

Solving My Breathing Problem

During this time I developed a breathing problem that I am very confident was not related to COVID (except to the extent it provided an extra catabolic stress on my body) and was instead related to my diet. I felt that I was breathing much more slowly and less deeply than my mind believed I needed to, which caused anxiety. I believe this was due to my low-carb, low-calorie diet and my rapid weight loss crashing my metabolic rate. Since carbs generate more CO2 than fat, and since a greater rate of metabolism generates more CO2 than a lower rate of metabolism, these were multiple causes of low CO2 production colliding at once. Since CO2 is acidic, the low CO2 production makes the blood more alkaline. The body responds by breathing less, which helps retain the CO2 to restore pH balance.

The one other time this happened to me was 17 years earlier when I was on a low-salicylate diet called the FAILSAFE diet. I was, by accident, eating a low-calorie diet because my foods were so restricted. Since salicylates shift metabolism toward fat-burning, this was another collision of multiple factors leading to low CO2 production. I had the exact same problem. It was relieved acutely by eating, and was relieved over the long term by eating more calories and carbs.

To fix this issue, I temporarily removed my caloric deficit and switched to a moderate-protein, high-carb diet based around bread, lentils, fruit, and orange juice. This made the breathing problem completely go away.

Once I was confident my breathing was normal, I instituted a more moderate caloric deficit to finish off my weight loss. This was based around the same principle: eyeball my portion sizes while eating similar foods day-in day-out, and adjust them until they lead to consistent weight loss.

From August 28 to October 12, I went from 164.1 to 153.8. This was 10.3 pounds over 45 days, a much more moderate pace of 0.2 pounds per day or 1.6 pounds per week.

Deciding on a Final Target

I decided to make my final weight loss target sufficiently into the normal-BMI range that if I were to eat intuitively without micromanaging anything I would have a window of five pounds to gain while still staying normal-BMI. The top of the normal range for me is 161, so I figured anything under 155 would be adequate.

Throughout this time, I was also measuring my waist circumference. I find this a very valuable tool to control for weight gained during muscle growth. My goal was to keep it around where it had been when I've been fit, excepting the rather extreme approach I took in preparation for my fitness pictures in 2018.

Historically I've used a Myotape, which has clocked my waist in at 28 inches when I've been reasonably fit. In October of 2020, my waist circumference was 36 with the Myotape. By May 9, it had fallen to 32.5. Then I switched to the Renpho, which I like better but which has a different amount of tension in it that leads to a higher reading. The switch created a false increase of 2.47 inches, increasing the reading to 34.97. Using the Renpho, my waist circumference fell from 34.97 on May 10 to 29.12 on October 12. Presumably with the Myotape this would have been 26.65, reflecting an overall loss of 9.35 inches.

This gave me some room to float upwards yet stay near what would be my historical 28″ on the Myotape.

Exercise

I should note that throughout my entire period of weight loss, I was weightlifting three times a week and aiming to get a minimum of 15,000 steps. Especially toward the end, I found getting 15,000 steps to be extremely helpful in maintaining my caloric deficit. Of course I could have eaten less food, but getting the steps in kept my body revved up and made it easier to cut my food intake, so not getting the steps and cutting my food intake even further would have been unnecessarily difficult.

Maintenance, Hormones, and Melatonin

Since October, I have focused on making sure I stay in normal-BMI range and my waist stays under 30 on the Renpho, all while eating intuitively and not micro-managing anything.

My weight mostly fluctuates between 156 and 158, occasionally taking a brief trip down to near 155 or a brief trip up to near 160. My waist circumference mostly fluctuates between 29.3 and 29.6 on the Renpho, rarely going out of that range and never for more than a day.

Once I achieved my target weight and proved I could maintain it, I gradually reduced my melatonin dose in 2.5 milligram increments until I finally got rid of it. I am no longer taking melatonin.

I will write a separate post on hormones, but my testosterone and estrogen both made big improvements. My serum cortisol declined but is still slightly high out of the reference range.

I am very interested in seeing if the work I am currently doing to relieve the pressure in my neck caused by straightened and insufficiently mobile vertebrae (which is slightly deforming my right ventral cord) lowers my cortisol further. My hormone optimization is still in progress.

While I think I could have forced my weight loss under almost any circumstances, I believe maintaining it will be centrally dependent on my ability to manage stress in a healthy way and be true to myself and my values. As such, much of the work I am doing that will help me maintain my fat loss is in my personal life, behind the scenes.

Other Measurements: DEXA, Skulpt, Calipers

I am, at heart, a systems optimizer. I am now being true to myself and taking a much more systematic approach to my health. This includes ensuring I follow up on every problem I have discovered and maintain every achievement I have made.

For my fat loss, this means quantifying much more precisely my body fat and figuring out the best home measurements I can use to approximate it.

Today, I did the following:

  • I took skinfold caliper readings that gave me a 4 on my chest, a 9 on my abdomen, and a 9 on my thigh, which for my sex and age predicts a bodyfat of 11%.
  • I took a set of photos, which include the 2021 photo shown at the top of this post. I store progress photos in my “Jefit” app that I use to track my workouts.
  • I did a full-body scan with my new Skulpt, which uses a 24-point bioimpedance measurement to estimate total body fat percentage, which clocked in at 14.5%.
  • I had a DEXA scan, which clocked in at 20.5%.

Incidentally, the caliper measurement is identical to what my Yunmai scale currently says. However, my Yunmai scale is worthless for its bodyfat measurement. It had me at 11.1% when my BMI was just shy of obese!

From among these, the DEXA should be the gold standard. My goal with the others is to find which of these measures best correlates with the DEXA. Obviously the Skulpt is much closer to the DEXA but it is still far away. The calipers are very far away. That might be because I am not good at using them, but if that's the case it's just as much of a reason not to use them myself at home. Using the Skulpt is time-consuming, so I won't do it often. But will it help me predict a change in my bodyfat according to DEXA better than just using the combination of weight and waist circumference, which is easy to do daily?

To find out, I will repeat a DEXA and see which of these best tracks with any changes.

The DEXA and Skulpt both provide insights into where the fat is stored. Here are the DEXA results:

They show that I'm in the 25th percentile “young normal” (YN) and the 10th percentile for those my age (AM). I'm less interested in that and more interested in where optimal health is, which I'm guessing is closer to 15% for a male, but I will do some research when I can and make sure to get into the optimal range next year.

I appear from this to carry the least fat in my trunk and arms, and the most in my legs. I have more gynoid fat than android fat which sounds rather emasculating, but I believe this means I carry more fat in my hips than my abdomen, which I believe is healthier. This is quite surprising to me as I expected to have more visceral abdominal fat and more love handle fat.

The Skulpt reading may not be as precise as the DEXA, but since it reports 24 different points, it gets more granular:

Chris Masterjohn's Body Fat Using SkulptChris Masterjohn's Body Fat Using Skulpt

These results are consistent with the DEXA, since they show much lower bodyfat levels in my upper body than my lower body, but they get much more specific: it appears I'm a fat-bottomed man. My bodyfat levels are highest in my butt!

I never would have guessed that, but it definitely explains why my forearms look so lean, and why I have some definition in my abs, when my total bodyfat is slightly over 20%.

Looking Forward

While my body composition is not optimal, it's gone from terrible to good. I believe the best choice for me now is to focus on maintaining it, and wait until I feel ready to pounce at it again in a few months to work on it further.

Now that I am embracing myself as a systems optimizer and taking the time to optimize myself (what else can I optimize if I don't keep myself optimized?!), I am choosing to focus on one singular health goal for 2-3 months at a time, while maintaining any progress I've gained on the others.

For the next two to three months, I am specifically focused on optimizing my functional anatomy, structure and movement, through a combination of physical therapy, Rolfing, and Functional Patterns training. My primary goal is to restore normal mobility in my thoracic and cervical spine, correct the lack of curvature in my cervical spine that is currently leading to slight deformation of my ventral cord, the bulging of two discs, and a tear in one disc, and to eliminate the head tension I've experienced from this for almost twenty years. I also want to see if this helps lower my cortisol.

During this time, my goal with my weightlifting and my food intake is to keep my weight stable but bias myself towards a slight gain in muscle mass.

Once I feel I have made sufficient progress on that, I will return to my body composition with the goal to keep my total body fat stable while otherwise maximizing muscle mass, and then reevaluate after that whether I should deliberately try to lose more fat. This will depend on my research into the optimal body fat percentage for males, and whether gaining muscle is enough to bring me into that zone itself.

I will plan to repeat the DEXA in one year. I will do it earlier if I feel I need to to resolve any confusion over my body composition. For example, if I gain muscle and push myself into the “overweight” category, I may run a DEXA to clarify that my body fat has not risen to unhealthy levels. My main plan, though, is to repeat it in one year and use that reptition to see which set of home measurements gives me the best ability to predict the change in DEXA with the least hassle.

In the grand scheme of things, I will plan to do DEXA scans very infrequently and rely on the best set of home measurements once I validate their utility for my own body.

Watch the Video and Discussion

What's Your Experience?

I hope this helps provide some useful insights! Did you gain “COVID weight”? How are you losing it? Let me know your experience in the comments!

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11 Comments

  1. I have carb deficient insomnia. As carbs help in serotonin production which leads to melatonin production, it makes sense.

  2. Why have you forgotten the teachings of the WAPF? Quality of food is more important than quantity. Skinless chicken breast – the body can’t use protein without fat. Vegetables without oil – the body can’t use vitamins without fat. Refined carbs (rice) lead to weight gain. Fats lead to weight loss. And I do mean animal fats, not refined veg. oils. Eat more fats and you automatically want to eat less because your food works better for you.
    Exercise is surely good for a person, but I don’t see how it is essential to weight loss when there are many people confined to wheelchairs who remain thin.

  3. When things first shut down in 2020, I was working from home for about six weeks or so. I spent the time I would have commuted by running (about 3 miles/day) instead, partly just to get out of the house and get some sun. So, even though fairly fit to start with I actually lost fat. In fact my checkup lab results in summer 2020 were noticeably better than a year prior. Where I live, things (such as the gym) were only closed for a month or two and then everything quickly went back to pretty much normal. But I have kept my fitness level up to try to keep the gains I made and stay at an optimal fitness level.

  4. So, just to clarify, when you are not eating many calories, are you doing intermittent fasting? Or just plain calorie restriction? Ie fasting through breakfast/lunch then eating, or eating each meal just very small portions at each? I’ve read a lot about intermittent fasting and it’s benefits for the body…one of which is curbing the “hangry” feeling that calorie restriction can give. I skip breakfast several times a week and only drink water till lunch

  5. Alright, so here’s my experience:
    I actually didn’t gain weight due to these stressful times, but it started roughly at the same time. I gained weight due to severe worsening of my condition (CFS) and some other consequences after a failed therapy in 2019, which meant having to lie down 22h/day, not being able to do much at all and developing severe depression which lead to alcohol abuse and a very bad lifestyle and diet. This started at the end of 2019, and at the end of 2020 I was at my highest measured weight, which I measured randomly due to interest: 86kg, 182cm / 190lbs, ~6feet with very little muscle mass due to exercise intolerance and genetics. I suppose I got up to around 88kg when I started working on my issues.

    At the beginning of 2021 I found my way out of the severe depression, stopped drinking, stopped smoking, got back to a regular sleep schedule and slowly started to implement healthy habits that I was already familiar with. I started to eat more whole foods and less processed foods, and then, with the help of cronometer, slowly started to lower my kcal intake. At first I did nothing special in terms of food selection, meal timing, meal spacing, macro distribution or any of that, I simply lowered my kcal intake initially, I weighed myself once a day in the morning and adjusted kcal accordingly. At some point I ended up with a very strict ketogenic diet due to some issues with the gut that I’m working on, but which happened to also help a lot with my hunger. I don’t believe there is anything magical about keto or other diets, it just reduces hunger for me which can help. This way I got down to 67kg am slowly going back to ~72kg as this seems to be my untrained sweetspot. If I wouldn’t be that restricted and working on my gut, I’d prefer to go with a diet specific to my personal needs, more veggies, more volume.

    The only issues that I’m dealing with right now are pretty much no libido and a ton of cravings. If I had to guess, I’d say that it’s partly due to the weight loss, but mostly due to stress from my health situation, the global situation, the very strict diet and dealing with the flu since two weeks. So far no clue how to deal with these cravings, but I found that relora helps with my sleep quite a bit and it’s supposed to lower cravings/hunger too so it may help this way aswell.

    By the way I love the C-Guide, thanks for your work Chris!

    Love and strength,
    Thomas

  6. What you wrote about insomnia from insufficient calorie intake is my life. “This at times leads me to bias myself toward slightly overeating to ensure I can sleep, which leads to very slow but steady fat gain over time.” Exactly me! I don’t just sleep badly when I don’t eat enough; I get hungry at night and have crappy light sleep while dreaming about food.

  7. I gained 100 pounds over 4 pregnancies in the last 8 years. Hormones, stress, breastfeeding, overeating, and the non-routine of raising young children all contributed. I thought it would be easier to lose weight but it’s been a major project. I have lost 48 pounds in the last year. Like you, I had to seriously restrict calories, restrict all simple carbs, and walk 1 hour a day at a good clip. I don’t eat much fruit — mainly animal proteins, and veggies. I also have to get in the mental zone. I listen to motivational weight loss podcasts daily to keep it at the forefront of my mind. It’s coming off! I have another 50 pounds to go. It’s tough but I am seeing so many benefits already.

  8. I too experience stress-induced weight gain
    Gained 60 lbs in the 3 years while getting my BSEE degree in 1969,

    Have recently (age 75, 6″3″ 1,96 lbs) been using an extremely simple method to lose weight
    Snack on a bowl of (low-calorie vegetables next to my chair and drink of glass of water 1/2 before a meal

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