Pediatricians are warning that the coronavirus pandemic’s protracted disruption of in-person schooling, sports and other activities is leading to weight gain that could have long-lasting impacts on children’s health.
Students are snacking more and exercising less, and nutritionists and doctors who study obesity worry the pandemic is putting children at greater risk for type-two diabetes and asthma, among other health concerns.
“We’re seeing a lot of elementary school-aged kids who are gaining 20 to 30 pounds in a year,” said Hai Cao, a pediatrician and owner of South Slope Pediatrics in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Brittany Wilson, a physician assistant with Island Kids Pediatrics on Staten Island, N.Y., said the pandemic seems to have accelerated weight gain among patients who were already overweight. Children 6 to 12 years old seem to be gaining the most.
‘This is a result of a very crazy year that we’ve had. This is in no way a judgmental reflection on parents.’
“Even kids in grammar school are getting depressed,” Ms. Wilson said. “They miss their friends. A lot of them aren’t doing as well academically. With depression also comes weight gain. They’re bored, and I think they’re comfort-eating.”
Studies have shown that being in the classroom helps keep students’ weights in check, especially children who live in low-income neighborhoods. The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 resulted in new federal nutrition standards for school meals, including serving more fruits and vegetables.
Students who attend schools offering more-nutritious foods have healthier weights, according to research by Michael Yedidia of Rutgers University and Punam Ohri-Vachaspati of Arizona State University, who have been tracking the heights and weights of tens of thousands of New Jersey children who live in low-income communities since 2008.
Children are also more active during the school year, when they are walking to and from school, moving between classrooms and participating in activities such as sports and gym class, Dr. Yedidia said.
“There are all these different elements associated with being in school that are healthy for children, and then Covid happens and all that is taken away,” he said.
The pandemic also led many cities and towns to close public playgrounds for months and cancel organized sports.
Before the pandemic, researchers found children gained weight faster during summer break than during the school year. While the rate of weight gain slowed when back in school, children didn’t lose the pounds they gained during the summer. This means a prolonged hiatus from in-person learning could lead to a substantial cumulative weight gain, Dr. Ohri-Vachaspati said.
“We hypothesize that when the children come back from this ‘extended summer,’ as we’ve been calling it, that they will be heavier or they’ll have a higher likelihood of being overweight or obese,” she said.
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For some adolescents and teenagers, the added anxiety is contributing to an uptick in eating disorders, Dr. Cao said. He believes children who are susceptible to anxiety may be restricting their eating as a way of feeling in control during a chaotic time.
“This is a result of a very crazy year that we’ve had,” Dr. Cao said. “This is in no way a judgmental reflection on parents.”
Dr. Cao recommended that parents take small steps to improve nutrition and exercise, including buying healthy snacks like carrots and hummus instead of bags of chips. Encouraging children to take walks outside and reducing screen time before bed to improve sleep will also help lower their risk for weight gain, he said.
The pandemic and resulting economic downturn have worsened food insecurity, meaning many families lack access to nutritionally adequate food, often because they can’t afford it, said
a pediatrician and the medical director of the American Academy of Pediatrics Institute for Healthy Childhood Weight. Food insecurity is associated with higher rates of obesity, since less-nutritious foods such as fast food and processed snacks are cheaper and easier to prepare than healthy meals, Dr. Hassink said.
“I sometimes think of this as the footprint that Covid will leave on our population—increased obesity, food insecurity and chronic disease,” Dr. Hassink said.
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In New York City, a 2020 report by the Mayor’s Office of Food Policy found that more than 1 million residents, or nearly 13% of the total population, lacked access to nutritionally adequate food. The borough of the Bronx had the highest rate of food insecurity, at about 17.5% of its 1.4 million residents.
“These communities don’t have enough access to healthy food,” said Dina Brown, program director of middle school after-school programming at the nonprofit social-services organization BronxWorks. “The healthier you eat, the more money it’s going to cost.”
Bronx resident Sabrina Bryant said her 13-year-old son played basketball, football and lacrosse before the pandemic. This year, he has gained a few pounds because he is stuck at home all day, learning remotely and ordering fast food for meals while she is at work.
“My son is a playful boy. He likes to run, play with his friends,” she said. “Once he starts going back to school and they start doing sports and kids can play in the gym and with each other, he will go back to normal.”
Write to Kate King at [email protected]
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