The Covid-19 pandemic worsened an already dire childhood obesity epidemic

Covid-19 has exacerbated the childhood obesity epidemic, and kids from Black and Brown communities have been disproportionately affected.

Dr. Edith Bracho-Sanchez (@DoctoraEdith) is an assistant professor of pediatrics at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, a pediatrician with the NewYork-Presbyterian Ambulatory Care Network and the host of "Las Doctoras Recomiendan," a child health podcast distributed by the Univision network. Dr. John Rausch is an associate professor of pediatrics at Columbia University Irving Medical Center and medical director for Health for Life West, a comprehensive weight management program at the NewYork-Presbyterian Ambulatory Care Network.

(CNN)Pediatricians like us have seen it over and over again in the last few months -- kids who have put on 5, sometimes 10, at times even 20 pounds -- since the onset of the pandemic.

In a year filled with so much tragedy and suffering, it would be easy to dismiss a few extra pounds in a child or to think of weight gain as a problem to be solved once the pandemic recedes. But the weight gain we are seeing in kids is neither trivial nor can it wait.
The specifics leading to weight gain vary. Sometimes it's Dad, who recently took over the cooking and may be overfeeding the kids; other times it's Grandma, who has been spoiling them now that they're home; for still others, favorite sports are no longer an option, or they've stopped going outside altogether.
Through the many stories we hear in our practices, one fact remains: The pandemic created the perfect conditions for kids to gain weight, and they have.

Deprived of nutrition and activity

What we are seeing in our offices — which serve mainly Black and Brown children — was predictable. As a result of what became an unnecessarily prolonged crisis, countless kids in this country have been deprived of the nutrition and opportunity for physical activity they previously received in school.
The loss of structured in-person learning has in turn disrupted other aspects of children's lives — what was previously an 8 p.m. bedtime on a school night became 9 p.m. or later, until there was no bedtime. As parents juggled working from home while overseeing online learning, mealtimes changed, portion sizes became bigger, and snacks became more common.
The changes in every home have happened against a backdrop of record unemployment and skyrocketing food insecurity. In our practices we've seen food budgets gradually tighten and families turn to cheaper, higher-calorie, more processed foods in an attempt to feed their kids.
All of this — the unemployment, the food insecurity, the deprivation of in-person learning and the disruptions that have come with it — have disproportionately affected Black and Brown communities.

Higher rates of obesity

It's children in these very same communities who had higher rates of obesity prior to the onset of the pandemic, and who are most at risk for its lifelong consequences. In the United States, 18.5% of all children ages 2 to 19, or 13.7 million kids, currently have obesity. For Hispanic children, the prevalence of obesity is 25.8%, compared to 22% for non-Hispanic Blacks and 14.1% for non-Hispanic White kids, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Further, while Covid-19 has in general spared the majority of the pediatric population, it is children who suffer from obesity who are most at risk for its severe complications, including intubation and ICU admission.
Beyond Covid-19, the growing list of complications from childhood obesity is known to include diabetes, fatty liver disease, high cholesterol, chronic renal disease, musculoskeletal problems and decreased self-esteem, among many others.

Previously healthy kids are sick

Though these may seem like distant downstream consequences, they are manifesting themselves right now. Over the last few months, our clinics have filled with previously healthy children who now have high blood pressure, elevated markers for pre-diabetes and diabetes, children who have purposely started to skip meals after noting their own weight gain and children for whom the extra pounds have translated into new onset sleep apnea.