The challenges that children have endured during COVID-19 have sometimes been the quieter battle amidst the catastrophic loss of lives. However, those working with children know that life turning upside-down because of the pandemic has been extremely harmful to their emotional and physical health. Children’s daily routine and structure, which represent a sense of safety to them, has not returned in over a year.
With the loss of normalcy during COVID-19, the environmental conditions in which people are born, live, and work as they relate to unhealthy weight, race and ethnicity have been exposed and magnified.
The relationship between environmental conditions and obesity is well documented. Unfortunately, higher levels of obesity are seen in certain population groups with increased risk for COVID-19 infections. Unfavorable food environment (for example, challenges to access and the ability to afford nutritious foods, and increased access to higher-calorie diets), physical activity challenges (for example, increased sedentary activities and reduced opportunities for physical activity), as well as mental health due to isolation all increase risk for obesity. Given their financial difficulties, low-income families experience challenges to access and the ability to afford nutritious foods and are predisposed to foods that are low in nutrition and high in calories, which are commonly more affordable.
Looking at this from a numerical, objective perspective, the prevalence of pediatric obesity for children and adolescents aged 2-19 in 2017-2018 was 19.3%, affecting about 14.4 million children and adolescents. On average, the prevalence of overall obesity increased from 13.7% to 15.4% in a six-month period during the COVID-19 pandemic. Of additional concern was that the obesity prevalence most affected Hispanic and non-Hispanic Black patients.
The pandemic, which caused job losses, remote schooling, limited physical activity, increased screen time and disrupted sleep cycles, has not only exacerbated a chronic illness, but has also strengthened the racial and ethnic disparities seen within obesity. This describes a pandemic within a pandemic.
Even under these conditions, families with obesity or those who are at risk for developing obesity can create healthy habits to combat the effects of the pandemic:
Establish day- and night-time routines, including meal and snack schedules. This will help to limit grazing between meals and reduce overall calorie intake.
Prepare family meals together. Eat more meals at home, instead of away from the home.
Encourage adequate hydration through water or other sugar-free alternatives (such as low or zero calorie drink mixes) instead of sweetened drinks, like soda and juices.
Incorporate daily physical activity, such as active play, walking, biking, or dancing.
Consult your child’s pediatrician regarding concerns about their health and/or implications caused by COVID-19.
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