Story at a glance

  • Parents are seeing weight gains in their children since school closures started because of the COVID-19 crisis.
  • Children ages 10 to 17 have obesity at a rate of 15.5 percent nationally, according to a report.
  • The pandemic and remote learning could lead to a greater childhood obesity problem in the U.S.

Childhood obesity is an issue that has increased over the years in importance for health in children. When schools closed in March and many children in fully remote-learning situations this fall, child health experts are worried that the problem will get worse. Some parents are reporting that their children are gaining weight. 

When schools are closed, kids don’t get access to a range of activities and services such as hot meals, physical and mental health check ins and exercise. Children from marginalized communities may stand to lose even more if their families cannot afford to provide healthy meals and do not have the time or resources to attend to all of their needs. These factors could lead to changes in lifestyle that could affect children’s physical and mental health. Lack of access to school meals and less exercise could lead to weight gain.

In a paper published earlier this year, experts suggested that out of school time due to the pandemic could exacerbate weight gain typically seen during summer break. A past study showed that children in the U.S. eat fewer vegetables and more added sugar during the summer, although they also were more active and watched more television as well. Another study found that children’s body mass index percentile decreased overall by 1.5 percent during the school year and increased by 5.2 percent during the summer.


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A recent report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation states that nationally 15.5 percent of children 10 to 17 years old have obesity. These data are pre-pandemic from several sources, with the most recent from 2018 to 2019. The report also provides percentages for each state and breaks it down by race.

The report states:

“The disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on families furthest from economic opportunity, people of color, and people with obesity should heighten awareness of the need for more equitable policies and more investment in prevention.

“In the short term, modernizing and strengthening key policies is essential for America’s recovery from the pandemic. Longer-term reform to ensure programs and policies at all levels of government prioritize health and equity is critical for reducing disparities; creating healthier child-care settings, schools, and communities; and ensuring that all children can thrive.”


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The authors push for policies and funding for programs that aim to help families in need of food assistance.

“COVID-19 creates an unprecedented opportunity to rethink policies and redesign programs to prevent disease and better promote health for all,” write the authors.

The report discusses policies on sugary drinks and marketing for those products. “If I were queen for a day, I would use the unfortunate COVID-19 crisis to pass a national tax on sugary drinks and use that revenue toward improving the public's health,” says professor Sara Bleich at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, according to the report.

In July, one researcher estimated projections of how the coronavirus pandemic could affect childhood obesity and found that it could increase by 2.4 percent by the end of the year if schools remained closed through December. Anecdotally, some parents are seeing that happen in their children.

“If your kid is going to have free access to the kitchen all day, stock it with carrots and apples,” Ilan Shapiro, medical director of health education and wellness for AltaMed Health Services, tells The Washington Post. Parents can set the example by eating healthy, he adds. Families can also plan physical activities and exercise together.

In an editorial in The Post and Courier, the editorial staff points out that about 22 percent of children 10 to 17 years old in South Carolina are classified as obese, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation report. Only two other states have higher rates of obesity in this age group.

“Of course, that third-worst-in-the-nation title predates COVID-19, so just getting kids back to their 2019 level of exercise won’t cure the problem,” write the authors. “For that, we have to find better ways to get kids interested in physical activity, and schools can’t do that alone. We need more active engagement from non-profits, community leaders and family members.”

Not only is weight gain important to consider for the child’s health normally, obesity is also a risk factor that is related to severe cases of COVID-19 in children and adolescents, according to a study. Families experiencing food insecurity may experience this more harshly.

Shapiro notes, “When you have a lot of stress, and you’re bored, and you’re not moving, and apart from all that you have access to something that makes you feel better, you do it. The food becomes like your drug.”

Other resources:

Painted Playgrounds Toolkit

SpiderFit Kids

Boks

Physical and STEM activities

CDC guidelines

Recipes and meal planning

For up-to-date information about COVID-19, check the websites of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. For updated global case counts, check this page maintained by Johns Hopkins University or the COVID Tracking Project.

You can follow Chia-Yi Hou on Twitter.


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Published on Nov 11, 2020