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.
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.