COVID-19 pandemic may exacerbate childhood obesity, experts warn

Posted: 6 April 2020 | | No comments yet

As children stay home, potentially for the rest of the academic year, public health experts have urged policy makers to introduce new measures that would promote healthy eating and exercise during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Public health scientists have predicted that school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic will exacerbate the epidemic of childhood obesity in the US. Andrew Rundle, DrPH, Associate Professor of Epidemiology at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, and colleagues have said that they expect COVID-19-related school closures will double out-of-school time this year for many children in the US and will exacerbate risk factors for weight gain associated with summer recess.

In many areas of the US, the COVID-19 pandemic has closed schools and some of these school systems are not expected to reopen this school year.

While much has been written about poor food and lack of physical activity in schools, the data reportedly showed that children experience unhealthy weight gain primarily during the summer months when they are out of school. Unhealthy weight gain over the summer school recess is particularly apparent for Hispanic and African-American youth, and children who are already overweight, the researchers explained.

“There could be long-term consequences for weight gained while children are out of school during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Rundle. “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.”

As households stock up on shelf-stable foods, the researchers said that they appear to be purchasing ultra-processed, calorie-dense comfort foods. Social distancing and stay at home orders have also reduced the opportunities for exercise, particularly for children in urban areas. Sedentary activities and screen time are also expected to expand under social distancing orders; available data has reportedly shown that online video game usage is already soaring.

The authors have presented several interventions for reducing risk factors for unhealthy weight gain during the school closures:

  • Some school districts are offering students grab-and-go meals at school sites or via buses running along their regular pick-up routes. Research shows that food insecurity is associated with unhealthy weight among children, and addressing food insecurity will likely have long term benefits for child health
  • Farmers markets, which often provide speciality and ethnic produce and prepared foods valued by immigrant communities. As such, cities and states should consider them as part of essential food services, but also create social distancing plans for such markets
  • As schools build their remote teaching capacity, they should make physical education a priority, with home lesson plans for physical activity and/or streaming exercise classes.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is responsible for widespread sickness and death, straining healthcare systems, shutting down economies, and closing school districts,” said Rundle. “While it is a priority to mitigate its immediate impact, it is important to consider ways to prevent its long-term effects, including new risks for childhood obesity.”

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