In a year filled with so much tragedy and suffering, it would be easy to shed a few extra pounds in a child or think of weight gain as an issue to be addressed once the pandemic has subsided. But the weight gain we see in children is neither insignificant nor expected.
The specifics leading to weight gain vary. Sometimes it’s daddy, who recently took over the cooking and maybe overfeeds the kids; other times, it was Grandmother who spoiled them now that they were at home; for more others, favorite sports are no longer an option, or they have stopped coming out altogether.
Through the many stories we hear in our practices, One fact remains: the pandemic created the perfect conditions for children to gain weight, and they did.
What we see in our offices – which primarily serve black and brown children – was predictable. As a result of what has become an unnecessarily protracted crisis, countless children in this country have been denied the nutrition and physical activity opportunities they previously received in school.
The loss of structured in-person learning in turn disrupted other aspects of children’s lives – what used to be a bedtime at 8 p.m. on a school night became 9 or more, until then. that there is no more bedtime. As parents juggled working from home and supervising e-learning, meal times changed, portion sizes got larger, and snacks became more common.
The changes in every household have occurred amid record unemployment and skyrocketing food insecurity. In our practices, we have seen food budgets gradually tighten and families have turned to cheaper, higher calorie and more processed foods in an attempt to feed their children.
All of this – unemployment, food insecurity, deprivation of in-person learning, and the disruption that comes with it – has disproportionately affected black and brown communities.
Higher obesity rates
Previously healthy children are sick
While these may appear to be distant consequences downstream, they are manifesting themselves right now. Over the past few months, our clinics have filled with previously healthy children who now have high blood pressure, high markers of pre-diabetes and diabetes, children who have deliberately started skipping meals after having noted their own weight gain and children for whom the extra pounds resulted in new sleep apnea.
As we begin to help families build healthier habits, an increase in mental health issues such as depression and anxiety in children and their parents, as well as the same disruptions that led children to take weight in the first place, are obese. more difficult to process.
Mental health issues make it worse
Depression can make meal planning very difficult, just as anxiety can sometimes lead to overeating. And recommending that a child eat more vegetables is an impossibility for a mother who doesn’t have access to fresh fruits and vegetables and just tries to feed hungry bellies and keep the lights on; and physical activity indoors can be a Herculean task for a family of eight living in one room.
Like many problems, the childhood obesity epidemic has been in development for a long time and is worsened by the Covid-19 pandemic. However, as we begin to envision a post-pandemic world, we have the opportunity to make significant improvements in childhood obesity and hence the long-term health of a generation.
Now is the time to support national health recommendations with the financial help parents need to implement them. Schools will also need improved and sustainable funding if they are to provide healthy school meals to the many children who spent most of 2020 at home. We also need to find ways to keep afloat the many small primary care offices across the country that provide primary care services and act as safety nets for the most vulnerable among us.
Although a vaccine will soon be available for many people and the end of the pandemic seems more tangible, the consequences of the disruption of life will remain with us for years to come. The health of a generation of children depends on our foresight, our investments and our commitment now.