This article is for educational purposes only and is part of a series we are focusing on for World Health Day which falls on the 7th of April, 2021. Please consult a pediatrician if you are concerned about your child’s weight gain.
The pandemic has opened up a Pandora’s box of health issues. The profound disruptions of 2020—including changes to children’s lifestyles—may have a lasting, harmful legacy.
The newly coined term, ‘Covibesity’, depicts the state of obesity that has been on the rise during the pandemic. Among children, the rates of weight gain have been problematic, to say the least. Studies show that children tend to round up the most during summers. From that standpoint, 2020 was like a 10-month summer. Pediatricians across the state are seeing their patients with higher weights and a rise in health risk markers.
School closures increased online activity; lockdowns reduced exposure to outdoors, social distancing meant almost no sports, and growing food insecurity affected the available quality of nutrition. Missing out on physical interaction and positive stimulation through friends added to feelings of depression and lethargy, which manifested comfort eating. All of these factors snowballed into children falling victims to a sedentary lifestyle that quickly added pounds.
Child obesity has been an ongoing health crisis, even before the pandemic. Texas falls in 12th place for obesity in kids aged 10-17, translating into 17.3% of children in this age group who struggle with obesity. In Texas, Hispanic and African American children have nearly twice the rate of obesity compared to non-Hispanic white children.
The Pandemic Weight Gain is Driven by Many Factors.
Consumption of Low Nutrition Foods
Over 2.5 million (32%) of Texas children do not eat any vegetables. 28% of 8th graders and 36% of 11th graders skip breakfast, and 1.5 million (19%) of Texas children do not have fruit daily.
Before the pandemic, schools needed to hit a range of nutritional benchmarks to be federally reimbursed for meals. It made a difference in what kids were eating, their preferences, and their weight. Millions of low-income children relied on school meals for two-thirds of their daily nutritional needs. With the lockdowns in place, this suddenly stopped.
At home, the pandemic started off with more families cooking instead of picking a quick meal on the go. However, with time, we settled into the routine of working and attending school from home. Meals started coming out of shelf-stable, processed, canned ingredients. Snacking has reduced to high sodium or sugar-laden junk.
A healthy diet is associated with better physical, psychological, and social health. Skipping breakfast leads to overweight & obesity. Overindulging in highly processed foods can cause pre-diabetes or type 2 diabetes in young children. Children who eat more fruits & vegetables have lower body weight.
Images of kids running through fields or swimming in pools that pop in our mind when we talk of summer are pretty different from what happens each year. It’s actually when they become more sedentary. With social distancing in full force, millions of school kids stayed indoors and far from getting the basic daily physical activity. Even without the pandemic, 78.4% of Texas youth didn’t meet 60+ minutes of physical activity guidelines five days a week, and only 8.8% of 11th-grade girls got 60+minutes of physical activity daily. These alarming statistics have taken a turn for the worse now. What has followed are sedentary days and increased chances of obesity and weight gain. It also aggravates the feelings of restlessness and anxiety in children. Online classes now demand more screen time that requires being seated for hours at a stretch, reducing physical movement even further.
The presence of electronics in the bedroom can significantly hinder sleep patterns in children and adults. 35% of 2nd graders in Texas have electronic devices in their bedroom, and 79% of 11th graders sleep near their phones. The pandemic has disturbed regular bedtimes due to there being a lack of daily routine.
Lack of good quality sleep is a health hazard for children. It’s directly related to the body’s capacity to metabolize nutrients and glucose and manage weight. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends school-age children (aged 6 – 12) sleep 9 – 12 hours a night, and teenagers (aged 13 – 18) get 8 – 10 hours of sleep. The pandemic has disturbed regular bedtimes due to there being a lack of daily routine.
While starvation resulting from food insecurity is not common in the United States, unhealthy weight gain is the direct consequence of economic uncertainty. Food insecure families that depend primarily on school meals for their children’s nutrition are less likely to have access to healthy meals independently. Instead, they turn to cheap energy-dense foods there are more affordable. The relaxation of USDA laws regarding the nutritional content of school lunches, allowing for less fruit and more starchy veggies like corn and white potatoes, is another concerning factor that will heighten child obesity.
How To Tackle Your Child’s Weight Issues As A Parent
Experts say that putting children on diets or counting calories in this majorly stressful time can be a big mistake. Instead, if you are concerned about your child’s weight gain, approach it with curiosity rather than a problem-solving attitude. It’s very typical for bodies to change, pandemic or not. Children of all ages usually follow a growth pattern that encompasses “rounding out” before they shoot up in height. This growth especially occurs just before and during puberty. What you may be noticing could be a normal variation in weight and size that we’re blaming on the pandemic.
Restricting food is often the first strategy parents adopt when they’re concerned about a child’s weight. And it almost always backfires. When we try to get kids to eat less to weigh less, we often notice the same outcomes that we’re trying to prevent. A healthier approach would be to work towards getting the whole family in a routine of eating together, a habit that has many benefits. Stock up your pantry with filling and healthy snacks because honestly, sitting for those online classes and meetings warrant some snacking!
Focus on getting at least one hour of vigorous physical activity with your kids. A nature trail, biking, hiking or a camping trip are safe options at this point. If your kid has always preferred reading, writing, and staying indoors, help them find forms of movement they enjoy like gardening, dance, or even yoga. Ensure that your kids have access to a healthy breakfast. Avoid buying unhealthy food and drinks, so if it’s not home, they can’t have it. Make healthier snacks and swap enriched ingredients with whole.
Schedule routines so your family gets a total of 8 hours of sleep each night. Have heart to heart conversations often, cuddle and love on your teenagers. Children need to know they are safe and cared for and that they can trust their body’s changes, no matter what that is. If you are worried their weight is not where you would like it to be, you aren’t alone. These are conditions stressing everyone out right now, and we all have to give ourselves a little bit of grace.