Weight loss and exercise in the shadow of the Hamas-Israel War

Science and Health

“I’ve given up on dieting,” a neighbor confided in me. With two sons and a daughter in the army, her resolve to watch her weight ended on Oct. 7. 

A veteran dieter, she had lost 20 kg. a year ago, but since the war began she found herself drowning her worries in chocolate, French fries, and everything she knew wasn’t healthy.

“With one soldier up North and another in Gaza, watching the scale go up is the least of my worries,” she said.

She is not alone. When initial alerts went out to stock up safe rooms with food supplies “just in case of invasions,” another woman told me that her husband came back with eight bags of groceries – mostly wafers, crackers, and cookies, with some salty greasy chips thrown in.

“I told him we would need a crowbar to pry ourselves out of the mamad [safe room] if we ate that!” his perturbed wife said. She promptly donated the “goodies” to soldiers, and restocked their safe room with tuna fish, rice cakes, peanut butter, and canned beans. 

THERE’S NO question Israelis’ food habits have been impacted by the trauma. (credit: JUSTIN SULLIVAN/GETTY IMAGES)

She added some hand weights and resistance bands to the safe room as well.

Even though she works out at the gym almost every day, Zohar Shavit, a personal trainer in Karnei Shomron, said that she had put on a few pounds since Oct. 7, which she attributed to the combined PTSD from dealing with two sons in the army, the loss of her close friend Adi Meisel in the Supernova attack, her decision to stop smoking a year earlier, and the overall winter blues.  

“I cry a lot,” she said. “Seeing a cat that’s been run over in the street, I think of Adi. A friend calls with news that her brother was killed in combat, I cry. And then I turn to something sweet. I need warm food – comfort food.”

When her soldiers are back for some home cooking, Shavit is on it – braising asado dripping in gravy and making her signature crispy schnitzels.

Fortunately, in Shavit’s case, her body mass index (BMI) is still healthy because of her numerous workouts with clients and on her own.

A personal trainer and competitive bodybuilder, Cornelle Blau Selig from Ramat Beit Shemesh has seen a marked drop in women actively seeking strength training at both the gyms she works at and attends.

Nevertheless, “classes still seem to be full,” she said. “My theory is that since the war, women do not have patience to work out with weights by themselves or with a trainer. They need more socialized exercise to keep their minds off the situation. 

“That being said, some movement is better than nothing. And there is something to be said for the therapy of being part of a social group.”

PEOPLE HAVE less patience than before Oct. 7, according to Selig. “There is a hesitancy to commit these days because things are so uncertain. I find that women often want to be home for their kids ‘just in case.’

“You should remember that you’re feeding your body for nourishment,” she added, “to be healthy and strong. Although they [people] crave unhealthy foods, after eating something unhealthy most people feel bad.

“It’s hard to snap from a sedentary unhealthy lifestyle to eating right and exercising, plus the opinions on health are always changing.” 

She pointed out that while a Mediterranean diet, for example, is recognized as healthy, people who have been reaping its age-old benefits also live in sunny Mediterranean climates and often do lots of walking in mountainous, hilly regions.

She suggested that if people are trying to counter the situational mindset, they should find the activity that makes them the happiest, as they are more likely to commit to spending time on it. Although she works out five times a week, she said she sometimes has to force herself to get started exercising but feels much better afterward.

“It’s understandable that people dealing with the impossible situation that we are in sometimes give up on nutrition and fitness,” she said.

THIS WRITER is no stranger to weight loss. Or weight gain. I shed almost 40 kilos in the past year and a half, shrinking from a size 5X to size 10, and switching from baggy muumuus [Hawaiian dresses] to tailored skirts. I, too, find myself challenged by the times. As a veteran yo-yo dieter, I know how easy it is to gain weight back after you’ve lost it. Like every other Israeli, I have been feeling the stress.

“A nationwide study published in The Lancet last month [Levi-Bels & Colleagues, 2024] showed an increase in probable PTSD and anxiety disorder among Israeli citizens of almost 50% after the Oct. 7 attack,” said Effi Kolatch, a self-development coach and the Beit Shemesh Warriors Football Team offense coach. 

“I’ve always been fascinated with the human mind and ways to deal and cope with what I consider to be the real epidemic in our Western society, and that is low/mild depression and anxiety. My philosophy is that to deal with these symptoms, we must create healthy, long-lasting changes in our behavior and habits,” he said.

He utilizes various coaching methodologies, such as the GROW Model, working “with clients to identify their goals, explore their current reality, generate options or strategies, and commit to action steps.”

Kolatch said that for the first two months after Oct. 7, almost all his clients battled some weight gain. He said many clients were also affected in the opposite direction and lost drastic amounts of weight due to extreme stress.

Indeed, as one woman in a Facebook group shared, she lost weight as a result of the trauma from Oct. 7. She exercises five times a week, walks, plays pickle ball, eats keto, makes low-carb choices, and says, “All these things collectively keep me sane!”

Another woman said that for the first month of the war, she couldn’t even look at food, lived on plain homemade popcorn, lost 10 pounds, and felt really weak.

“Regardless of weight loss or gain, people’s bodies and eating patterns have been drastically impacted,” Kolatch said. 

“People need to build healthy lifestyles and sustainable habit changes, regulating eating and sleeping, which needs consistency and motivation. 

“Most of my clients lost interest or energy to work out or care for themselves directly after the war. Self-care became foreign to them, as their mental health was impacted drastically.”

He said he helps his clients understand themselves better and figure out what makes them reach for food.

“Maybe it’s stress, feeling bored, or anxious thoughts. Once we identify the triggers, we build other ways to cope together instead of turning to food,” he explained. 

“There is no secret pill or a YouTube list of five easy steps to stop emotional eating. It takes time and effort. However, implementing small steps can make a big difference in managing emotional eating.”

Kolatch helps people by taking them through simple steps such as writing down their feelings, doing things that make them happy, or practicing deep breathing. He also encourages them to surround themselves with supportive people to talk to when experiencing negative emotions.

“The stress and not knowing what’s going to happen next have messed up a lot of people’s daily routines. So, instead of going for healthier options, many are turning to foods that make them feel better right away, the easiest and most comforting options, even if they’re not the best. Plus, with all the stress, some aren’t moving around as much as they used to, which doesn’t help, either,”  he said.

WHAT IF people don’t enjoy the prospect of yoga, meditation, or exercise?  

Kolatch said that while people love big solutions for big problems, even a few minutes a day of walking are better than none. He suggests that people put down their phones for 10 minutes and sit outside basking in the sun, or take a hot shower to alleviate stress.

“I always encourage my clients to find their preferred way of movement,” he said. “We are born to move. Finding a way to move your body that you enjoy and that will keep you consistent is the most important thing! Finding something that demands very little of you that you have no resistance to is better than signing up for a gym you will never go to. 

“Take deeper breaths, sleep well, take the stairs instead of the elevator, and stretch when you wake up. Small changes can make a big difference; and once you start, you realize it’s not as bad as you thought.”

He also said it is important to find a friend or group of people to share with.

“It’s statistically proven that if you want to create lasting change, you need community support. People don’t appreciate how negatively we are impacted without having a social life to cheer us on.”

He added that isolation can be deadly and that making friends and hanging out with family can help people to create a healthier life.

Fight, flight, or take a bite

As for diet, when we are under stress our bodies go into fight, flight, or “take-a-bite mode.” 

When under stress, the body releases hormones that trigger the “fight-or-flight” response, directing blood flow away from the digestive system and toward essential organs for survival. This causes a slowdown in digestive processes.

The stress hormone cortisol temporarily raises blood glucose levels to provide energy to cope with stress. Once the threat is gone, glucose levels return to normal. However, prolonged stress can prevent the body from recovering.

Chronic stress can lead to persistently high insulin levels due to increased blood glucose from cortisol. This can result in insulin resistance, leading to weight gain and increased abdominal fat. Cravings for fatty or sugary foods may also occur in an effort to regulate blood sugar.

Elevated cortisol levels can disrupt hormone production, affecting appetite regulation. This can result in increased food intake.

While many people can’t eat when they are under emotional duress, others turn to food for comfort. According to a study conducted by Manteau, overeating when stressed is determined by personality factors that are influenced by motivation and self-regulation. 

Ironically, “restrained eaters,” people who assiduously restrict and monitor their food intake, are most likely to eat more when they feel stressed, as are impulsive people who just don’t think about their food intake. Eating sweets and carbs initially boosts one’s mood, and if we are used to the dopamine rush of that initial “reward,” we are likely to turn to that reward when we are feeling blue or stressed.

Stress and overeating are partners in crime. 

A 2022 medical review on the relationship between weight gain and stress showed that stress causes weight gain by interfering with the cognitive processes of self-regulation, increasing the hormones that stimulate hunger, inducing people to overindulge in high fat/high sugar foods; disrupting sleep (which causes people to gain weight); and causing people to have less energy, resulting in a decline in physical activity. Anyone can backslide, but it is the ability to retake control that helps get us through stressful periods, like the one we are facing now.

In my 2007 book Joining the Thin Club: Tips for Toning Your Mind after You’ve Trimmed Your Body (Judith Lederman, Larina Kase, Three Rivers Press), my co-author, Larina Kase – a psychologist who specializes in issues surrounding weight loss – and I developed insights for those who find themselves using food to quell negative emotions. 

First of all, there is a pattern associated with food-related backslides. Eating six Peanut Butter Cups will not make you gain lots of weight, but backslide-thinking will.  

Here’s the pattern of the thought process:

  1. “I’ve ruined my healthy eating patterns.”
  2. “Since I failed, I may as well keep eating.”
  3. “See, I knew I was weak, and I have no willpower.”
  4. “Everyone can see that I am losing in my ‘food fight.”
  5. “Life feels better/easier/more enjoyable when I eat Peanut Butter Cups. I may as well give up on being healthy.”

Each of these beliefs renders you powerless and drains your motivation. 

As one nutritionist pointed out, “When you get a flat tire, you fix or replace the tire and keep on going. You don’t buy a new car. When you backslide due to emotional eating, you ought to have the same attitude.”

When that happens, the best thing you can do is to forgive yourself and take small steps to reclaim your power and your health.

Meanwhile, as I worked on writing this article, one of my many newsgroups alerted me of a terrorist shooting, people dead, another fallen soldier, missiles up north, testimony from someone who was raped, and a warning about the impending and inevitable war with Lebanon. 

Suddenly I found myself craving Haagen-Dazs, bread and butter; anything starchy, salty, or sweet. I had the sudden voracious need to assuage the ache in my soul and the uncertainty of my environment. I felt powerless. “Chocolate,” my brain implored me. “Now!” it insisted. Squelching my urge to eat, I abandoned my computer and instead grabbed the dog’s leash. “Let’s walk,” I told my eager Australian Shepherd. Setting my watch to “Outdoor Walk,” I picked myself up and headed out.  

When I returned from the walk and my cravings were gone, I patted myself on the back. I had won the battle, this time.

The fine line between fat phobia and dispensing weight loss advice

While sourcing this article, I came across dietitians and others who expressed concern about fat phobia and fat shaming. They addressed the concept of health at any size. Most people who are overweight have experienced fat shaming by doctors, friends, and family members – and even by their wristwatches and health apps.

When I was a magazine editor, I featured an important Fortune 500 VP on the cover of my tabloid. My publisher wouldn’t release the magazine until this beautiful, slightly round woman’s body was retouched to look lean. “You will see, she will like herself so much better when she sees this,” my boss assured me. “But it isn’t her,” I protested. The Photoshop diet was probably the fastest weight loss program ever, and it rankled me because the woman was lovely before her “de-curving.”

WHILE IT wasn’t my case, the truth is you can be big and healthy and fit.

I was unhappy and quite sedentary. My sugar was high, and my liver was fatty. That said, nothing any doctor said “inspired” me to lose weight. Nor was I encouraged by fad-dieting well-meaning friends or family who suggested I give up meat, sweets, carbs, and other food groups, or who exercised endlessly and ate only grapefruits.

There was no “Aha!” moment for me. I just reached a point where I decided I wanted to lose weight. I went to a doctor, who sent me to a dietitian, who found a way to help me lower my sugar, lose weight, and even start to exercise again. It was a long, slow road for me. 

Fat shaming and food blaming are harmful, not helpful. Food relationships are complex. People must reach the decision and decide, first and foremost, whether they want to lose weight. And if their answer is yes, they must choose the method of weight control most appropriate for them.

Justine Friedman – a Modi’in-based registered clinical dietitian and mindset mentor with over two decades of experience – said that her mission was simple: to guide her clients toward a healthier, more mindful, and vibrant life.

“I try to shift the focus away from weight and appearance toward health and well-being. I focus on emphasizing the importance of nourishing the body with nutritious food to support overall health rather than solely focusing on weight loss,” she said. “I explain how food lists of good and bad are generalized, and how what may be good or healthy for one person may not be right for another. I try to move away from labeling foods.”

She claimed that “One of the most important messages that need to be brought to this conversation is how all foods can fit into a lifestyle. 

“Many clients,” she said, “who have been fat shamed or shamed about their BMI feel bad whenever they eat. It is important that they know that they do not need to earn the “right” to eat food. That in order to be alive, we have to eat, and it is okay and normal to get hungry. When they start to tune in to their body and tune out the prescriptive and unhelpful dieting messages, then they immediately start to feel better and worry less about having to be in control of food. I prefer to use the word ‘balance’ versus ‘control.’

“The number on the scale is a subjective measure and can vary depending on the water balance of the body, exercise, the time of the month for women, medication they may be on. If clients are feeling good and their clothes are fitting better and the scale doesn’t reflect what they want, it can derail their whole day (week/month/year). It is not helpful and breeds a negative relationship with food and their body.”

A magic pill for weight loss?

These days, we are blessed with numerous ways to lose weight, and new medications and treatments are being developed every day. These methods are generally for people who feel they must lose a lot of weight and those who have serious health conditions such as elevated sugar or cholesterol due to obesity. The treatment must be tailored to the individual.

Treatments range from bariatric surgery to Danish pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk’s injectables – such as Semaglutide (Ozempic, Victoza, Wegovy) and Liraglutide (Saxenda) – which, while known to have side effects such as nausea and constipation, have been revolutionary in the treatment of high blood sugar and are being adapted as weight loss medication. 

Drug type GLP-1 agonists block the hormone GLP-1, which binds to a receptor in the body to make a person feel satiated after eating. The once-a-week injectable treatments can help, just as surgery, but people can regain all the weight lost if they never worked on their emotional eating issues. 