By John Salak-
Childhood obesity in America is not funny, cute or harmless. In fact, it is rampant and dangerous, usually the byproduct of a complex set of factors that ultimately threatens the physical and emotional health of almost 20 million children and adolescents between the ages of 2 and 19. Worldwide that number jumps to an astronomical 340 million people.
More troubling still, it’s probably getting worse thanks to the lockdown and restrictions brought about by COVID-19. The University of Buffalo, in fact, reports that the lack of structure caused by remote learning and other COVID-19-related restrictions has resulted in the children it examined eating on average an extra meal each day while also sleeping an extra 30 minutes every 24 hours. These children were also spending nearly five hours on a phone or in front of a TV or computers daily, while dramatically increasing their consumption of red meat, sugary drinks and junk food. Vegetable consumption did remain consistent with pre-pandemic levels, but average exercise fell by more than two hours a week.
“The tragic COVID-19 pandemic has collateral effects extending beyond direct viral infection,” reported Dr. Myles Faith, a childhood obesity expert and co-author on the Buffalo study. “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.”
Unfortunately, the obesity isn’t something these children and adolescents are likely to shed with age. In fact, 40 percent of American adults are considered obese, a condition that brings with it the threat of prediabetes, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular issues and mental health concerns.
Reports out of Sweden were even more dire in exploring the health risks tied to childhood obesity. The Karolinska Institutet, for example, reported that the mortality risk for children suffering from obesity are three greater when they enter early adulthood compared than other children. These at-risk children are more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression.
“Recognizing these adverse collateral effects of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown is critical in avoiding the depreciation of hard-fought weight control efforts among youths afflicted with excess weight,” Faith added. “School environments provide structure and routine around mealtimes, physical activity and sleep—three predominant lifestyle factors implicated in obesity risk,” says Faith.
Rutgers University researchers couldn’t agree more. Their recent study found that elementary and secondary schools that offer healthier food offerings and more opportunities for physical activities help student maintain healthier body mass indexes.
The study’s conclusions came following a yearlong examination of the food sources and physical activities options offered at 90 public schools, serving 19,000 students in Newark, Trenton, Camden and New Brunswick, New Jersey. In short, the healthier the food offerings and the greater the physical activities provided, the lower average body mass index for students.
“Evidence of the importance of school meals and of enforcing healthy nutritional standards is particularly timely given current federal proposals to roll back those standards,” noted Michael Yedidia, who co-directs the New Jersey Child Health Study at the Rutgers Center for State Health Policy. “These meals are critical to the health of low-income students, who are 80 percent of those served by federal school meals programs. They provide up to half of the students’ nutritional needs at low or no cost to parents.”
These issues are particularly critical as schools throughout the U.S. wrestle with how to reopen their facilities and what to offer in the face of the ongoing pandemic. A recent study from the University of Notre Dame found that any solution or nutritional intervention rests with the ability to deal in part with various psychological characteristics of children struggling with their weight, such as loneliness, anxiety and shyness.
Ultimately, Notre Dame researcher underscored the need for a “network effect” to deal with the national obesity crisis, which requires a personalized, comprehensive approach to successful nutritional interventions.
“Psychological characteristics clearly have interactional effects,” noted Nitesh Chawla, the Frank M. Freimann Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at Notre Dame and a lead author of the study. “We can no longer simply view them as individualized risk factors to be assessed. We need to account for the specific characteristics for each child, viewing them as a holistic set for which to plan treatment.”
Ultimately, the study found that parents and guardians have an enormous influence on their child’s nutritional health. Strong family dynamics have resulted in concerns for behavior and treatment and a sense of protectiveness led to stronger nutritional interventions, Notre Dame suggested. Conversely, a lack of authority led to minimal or no improvements.
“This is quantitative evidence of the success and failure of interactions as they relate to the characteristics and interactions between the child and the parent or guardian,” Chawla said.