My view

Childhood obesity rates are a cause for concern and action

By LINDA THOMAS-HEMAK, M.D.
Posted 2/1/22

Considering how so many facets of our lives have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, I don’t believe it’s the least bit shocking to say that many of us have been struggling to …

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My view

Childhood obesity rates are a cause for concern and action

Posted

Considering how so many facets of our lives have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, I don’t believe it’s the least bit shocking to say that many of us have been struggling to maintain a healthy weight.

  Especially during the early stages of the pandemic, families found themselves confined to their homes, snacking more and engaging in more sedentary activities. Stress levels soared, and food insecurity rates unfortunately reached an all-time high. Access to healthy foods was challenged by less-frequent trips to the grocery stores and significant financial constraints. Consequently, energy-dense, nutrient-poor, high-calorie processed foods with a long shelf life were preferentially purchased by many families. Virtual work and school and escalating screen time reduced energy expenditure substantially for most people. As a result, many found themselves gaining unhealthy amounts of weight—adults and children alike.

As a physician, this is a terribly distressing phenomenon, especially when it comes to kids, who even before the pandemic were experiencing staggering and escalating rates of obesity nationally.

According to a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), obesity rates rose nine percent among children ages five to 11 during the pandemic, with an average notable weight gain of five pounds. For adolescent kids ages 16 and 17, the average weight gain was two pounds. Children and teens who were overweight or obese pre-pandemic gained the most weight. The negative long-term impact of these pandemic-related weight changes on the overall health of those affected cannot be overstated.

The JAMA study analyzed the electronic health records for nearly 200,000 kids in the Kaiser Permanente health network in southern California. It validated the disturbing trend that our care teams have been seeing up close over the past year and a half. This is very sobering news, but not surprising, considering all of the upheaval from virtual schooling, altered sleep schedules, reduced access to sports, and mental duress related to social isolation.

Just like adults, when kids are stressed, anxious and depressed, they often lack initiative for exercise and engage in unhealthy, emotional eating habits as a coping mechanism. School closures only exacerbated the problem, since kids were cut off from physical education classes, team sports, class trips and the nutritious meals that most school districts currently provide.

Hopefully, these numbers will begin to decline now that most kids have resumed in-person schooling and a more normal routine. At the same time, we should deeply reflect and use this new knowledge to universally commit to doing a much better job of intentionally addressing America’s childhood obesity epidemic. We know that children who struggle with their weight too often grow up to be adults who struggle with their weight and deal with the many co-morbidities associated with obesity, including diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.

Fortunately, many health care organizations are increasingly looking at ways to better deal with the obesity epidemic, including The Wright Centers for Community Health and Graduate Medical Education. I have received board certification in obesity medicine, joining my colleague, Dr. Jumee Barooah. We have hired a director of nutrition and another pediatrician and internist with obesity medicine experience. Our talented primary care providers and resident physicians are expanding their knowledge and skill sets and competencies to better promote healthy lifestyles and more effective weight management.

Of course, we need parents and children empowered and engaged to help us in this fight. So, with that in mind, here are a few ways to raise healthier kids:

  1. Develop better eating habits. Family meals and modeling matter. The My Plate nutrition model is a very helpful tool that emphasizes plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, lean meats and proteins, lots of water and a lot fewer sugar-sweetened beverages.
  2. Encourage regular physical activity. Whether full-blown exercises or fun outdoor activities, it’s going to prove much more beneficial than sitting in front of the TV playing video games or spending countless hours on social media.
  3. Ensure proper sleep schedules. Lack of sleep often leads to kids eating more and being less active, so make sure they’re getting lots of shut-eye.

I know I’ve said this a lot in recent months, but the pandemic has truly taken a monumental toll on all of us. Children are at particular risk, so we need to do everything in our power as medical professionals and parents to ensure their health and safety—both now and in the long term. Not only do we owe it to them, but it is the ultimate way to show our love for them.

Linda Thomas-Hemak, M.D., a primary care physician board-certified in pediatrics, internal medicine, obesity medicine and addiction medicine, leads The Wright Centers for Community Health and Graduate Medical Education as president and CEO. She lives with her family and practices primary care in Jermyn, PA. Send your medical questions to news@thewrightcenter.org.

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