The COVID-19 pandemic brought on several issues and one of them is childhood obesity. Andrew Rundle, an associate professor of epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, said that there could be long-term consequences for weight gain while children stay at home during this crisis. While many organizations are offering tips for parents to keep their children healthy, experts fear that coronavirus lockdowns may exacerbate childhood obesity.
“Research shows that weight gained over the summer months is maintained during the school year and accrues summer to summer. When a child experiences obesity, even at a young age, they are at risk for higher, unhealthy weight, all the way into middle age,” said Rundle.
Childhood Obesity: Facts and Statistics
Many health professionals are particularly concerned about childhood obesity not only because it’s a serious medical condition that affects children and adolescents but also because the extra pounds often start children on the path to health problems that were once considered adult problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. It affects them both physically and mentally because this condition can lead to poor self-esteem and depression.
A 2017 study reported that the number of children and adolescents with obesity across the world increased from 1975 to 2016 from five million to 50 million among girls, and from six million to 74 million among boys. The findings were based on more than 2,400 studies that documented the height and weight of nearly 130 million children during those years.
According to Time, an American weekly news magazine and news website, the study also documented rates of under-nutrition and under-weight worldwide. The researchers found that the prevalence of underweight decreased from 9.2% in 1975 to 8.4% in 2016 among girls, and from 14.8% to 12.4% among boys. Majid Ezzati, professor of global environmental health at Imperial College London, said there will be more children who are obese than those who are underweight by 2022 if current trends in obesity continue.
“To us, obesity and under-weight are manifestations of the same issue, which is that people either cannot afford to or are not given the opportunity to eat enough, or they cannot afford to or are not given the opportunity to eat healthily. Hopefully,, with this study, we can bridge the disconnect between the two populations of people and find things in common to look at to solve the problem together,” Ezzati said.
The 2019 assessment of child malnutrition by UNICEF revealed that high rates of childhood obesity are a problem in a rising number of low- and middle-income countries. It found that over 40 million children under the age of five have been classified as overweight. The most profound increase has been in the 5-19 age group, where the global rate of overweight increased from 10.3% in 2000 to 18.4% in 2018.
"It's a shockingly fast increase. It's hard to think of any development indicator where you see such a rapid deterioration," lead author Laurence Chandy, director of UNICEF's Office of Global Insights and Policy, said.
Rise of Childhood Obesity During COVID-19 Pandemic
Obesity has garnered attention since the start of the pandemic because it was found to be the biggest risk factor for death from COVID-19 in those under 64 years of age—beating heart disease, diabetes, chronic lung disease, and high blood pressure. Aside from that, public health scientists in the US raised concerns that lockdown measures could exacerbate obesity due to enforced school closures. Rundle and his colleagues are expecting that COVID-19-related school closures will double out-of-school time this year for many children in the US, increasing risk factors for weight gain associated with summer recess.
A study led by Steven Heymsfield, MD, professor at the Louisiana State University Pennington Biomedical Research Center, and Angelo Pietrobelli, MD, professor at the University of Verona in Italy, revealed findings that only proved these expectations. According to Science Daily, an American website that aggregates press releases and publishes lightly edited press releases about science, the researchers examined 41 overweight children under confinement throughout March and April in Verona, Italy.
The participants were asked about their physical activity, screen time, sleep, eating habits, and the consumption of red meat, pasta, snacks, fruits, and vegetables. The data were collected three weeks into Italy's mandatory national lockdown, which were later compared to data on the children gathered in 2019. The results revealed that the children ate an additional meal per day; added nearly five hours per day in front of the phone, computer, and television screens; slept an extra half hour per day, and dramatically increased their consumption of red meat, sugary drinks, and junk foods.
"The tragic COVID-19 pandemic has collateral effects extending beyond direct viral infection. Children and teens struggling with obesity are placed in an unfortunate position of isolation that appears to create an unfavorable environment for maintaining healthy lifestyle behaviors,” co-author Myles Faith, Ph.D., UB childhood obesity expert, said.
It was also found out that children with obesity fare worse on weight control lifestyle programs while at home than when they are engaged in their school curriculum. "Depending on the duration of the lockdown, the excess weight gained may not be easily reversible and might contribute to obesity during adulthood if healthier behaviors are not re-established. This is because childhood and adolescent obesity tend to track over time and predict weight status as adults,” Faith, chair and professor of counseling, school and educational psychology in the UB Graduate School of Education, said.
Experts also say that screen time is associated with childhood obesity. Dylan Collins, CEO of internet safety company SuperAwesome, said that it’s likely that children will spend 2.5 to 3.5 times more hours in front of screens than they would prior to the pandemic. Thus, pediatricians are advising parents to plan their children’s schedules as well as encourage them to eat healthy foods and exercise.
“The phenomenon of physical play being translated into a digital forum is something that we’re just beginning to see, and it’s hard to know exactly how that plays out in the next few weeks,” Collins said.