Before the pandemic, 19% of American children ages 2 to 19 were considered obese. That rate has now jumped to 22% according to a recent study by the CDC of 432,302 Americans in this age group. This represents an increase researchers call “substantial and alarming,” says Physician's Weekly.
According to MedPage Today contributor Dr. Marisa Censani, a pediatric endocrinologist in NYC, says that the pandemic is expected to cause at least a 3% to 4% weight gain in children overall.
“In my obesity practice, children who had been losing weight before the pandemic are now returning with an average weight gain of 10 to 20 pounds,” she writes. “The signs I am seeing suggest we are facing a dangerous collision between the COVID-19 pandemic and a surging obesity epidemic.”
Some of the reasons Censani says the pandemic has caused this dangerous trend are less access to physical education at school, fewer extracurricular sports activities, and fewer healthy food choices because of financial challenges and grocery shopping restrictions. There has also been an increase in emotional eating due to the stress of the pandemic, says the expert.
“If we do not urgently address the obesity epidemic, the pandemic’s impact on the health of children with overweight and obesity will remain, with potential long-term consequences for our nation’s wellbeing,” she said.
Experts say that obesity in children differs from that in adults. While adult obesity leads to direct, chronic medical conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer, in kids it negatively affects their quality of life and may lead to depression and anxiety.
The best approach to tackle childhood obesity is to promote healthy habits rather than focus on weight loss, says an expert writing for Physician’s Weekly.
“For both schools and families, providing education and access to healthy, fresh foods can make a real difference”, says Dr. Sara Karjoo, a Florida-based pediatric gastroenterologist. “Encouraging more play and exercise can deliver improvements in children’s body composition and cardiovascular health.”
Karjoo says it is also important for parents to limit screen time and pay close attention to their children’s mental health.
Censani points out that over the past 30 years, the childhood obesity rate has more than doubled in kids ages 2 to 5 years, tripled in youth ages 6 to 11, and more than tripled among adolescents ages 12 to 19. She converted her in-person weight loss program to a virtual format during the pandemic with an emphasis on engaging children in cooking and activity demonstrations.
“When discussing healthy food options, we highlight foods with a lower glycemic index to promote more stable blood sugar levels,” she said. “These foods include nuts, beans, high-fiber fruits such as pears, berries, and apples and whole-grain breads.”
Censani stresses the importance of a multi-pronged strategy to tackle childhood obesity, with parents, physicians and the government all pitching in to support healthier outcomes for our children.
“If we intervene early to prevent the health complications caused by obesity and overweight, we can help give children a healthier future,” she said.
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