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COVID-19 and childhood obesity: When two pandemics collide

According to Neonatal Adiposity and Childhood Obesity, data shows in 2020, 1 in 3 children were considered overweight or obese.

HARTFORD, Conn — The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the lives of everyone in a big way, including our children. Since the pandemic started, the majority of families have been stuck inside. With screen time up and exercise down, add mindless snacking during virtual school to the mix, and two pandemics start to collide.

According to Neonatal Adiposity and Childhood Obesity, data shows in 2020, 1 in 3 children were considered overweight or obese. This statistic is staggering, and during the COVID-19 pandemic, has serious consequences.

“When you have obesity, it affects the heart, the lungs, and the immune system. So children suffering from obesity also have an impaired immune response, making them more likely to get COVID, and less likely to fight it” says Dr. Christine Finck, Surgeon in General at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center.

Social isolation, lack of routine, overeating, and stressful days have become the norm for many families trying to get through the day. It’s difficult trying to keep our kids occupied and happy, which includes giving in to things they want, like snacks and screen time, but according to Dr. Finck, “If the bad habits continue, the weight is just going to keep coming on”.

Stress is a huge contributor to the obesity epidemic in children. “Stress eating and the hormonal implications of looking for those comfort foods like mac and cheese or fried foods is prevalent,” says Finck.

In our pre-COVID world, kids were active with school sports and socializing with their friends outside of the home. Now, they’re sitting for long hours connecting with friends through video games and on their cell phones.

“We’re seeing upwards of 40-50% increase in screen time, especially before bed. That impacts a child’s sleep, and that also adds to the obesity epidemic” says Finck.

Dr. Finck says she fully understands. As a mom herself, she struggles with this on a daily basis as well. “You know I see it even with my own kids. That lack of sports. That lack of socialization with the sports. But it’s also that lack of constant physical activity whereby they’re getting their exercise”.

Limited socializing and weight gain can cause a snowball effect of mental health issues. Melissa Santos, Clinical Director of the Obesity Center at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center expressed her deep concerns. “We know that we’ve always had concerns that children with excess weight are at a higher risk for suicide attempts. One of the things that we’re seeing during the pandemic is the number of kids going to the emergency room for behavioral health reasons. It’s up 24% for kids ages 5-11, and it’s up over 30% for teenagers”.

So, what can we do to help our kids? Do it as a family! “Take it slowly. Take it one step at a time” says Dr. Finck. Working together as a family to create positive changes is a crucial component. Health experts say that establishing a new healthier habit takes time for our children, but it’s not impossible, you just have to make the food accessible. Instead of grabbing chips or candy, if a healthier option is available, they’re able to grab that instead!

“Half your plate being fruits and vegetables, a quarter being meat, and a quarter being carbs. Try and get as many colors as you can on the plate” says Santos.

Another tip to develop better eating habits is to schedule structured meal times. Eat as a family as often as possible, and have some fun with it! “Air fryers are terrific,” says Santos.

If your children like a crunchy snack, you can make things like sweet potato fries or crispy green beans in the air fryer in under 15 minutes. You can also make foods that are traditionally fried in oil in the air fryer, getting the same crispy end result, without all the guilt.

Santos also recommends to “Set up times during the day they go to brush their teeth. Nothing tastes good with a minty fresh mouth. So the best way to not give into snacking is doing something like brushing your teeth often throughout the day. Chew on sugar-free gum! Do things that are going to make it harder to give into some of those things that aren’t supporting your health”.

Other ways to get your entire family onto a healthier routine:

  • Take a family hike at a local state park
  • Have a family shoveling race during the next snowstorm
  • Incorporate kids into weekly meal prep, let them write out a weekly “menu”
  • Download the “Fooducate” app where kids can scan foods in the grocery store. The app grades the food on its health benefits, creating mindfulness in the grocery store
  • “Zombies Run” app is a fun way to get your kids up moving around the house
  • If you’re in need of resources, contact the Obesity and Weight Management Services at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center. Call 860.837.6717.
    • Services include Weight Management Programs, Bariatric Surgery & Psychology Services.



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