Childhood obesity and COVID-19: we aren’t doing enough

Photo credit: Roberta Macedo

This article was a submission to the 2022 University of Miami Graduate Op-Ed Challenge.

COVID-19 has worsened the onset of obesity in children — and we aren’t doing enough about it.

COVID-19, in many ways, has inextricably impacted the physical and psychosocial well-being of millions of families in the United States. While the virus itself presents many serious health risks, the dramatic changes to our lifestyles also have significant impacts on our health, especially for vulnerable populations, including adolescents.

Since its emergence in 2020, rates of weight gain and obesity risk in children have dramatically increased. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has observed a near doubling of body mass index during the pandemic compared to a pre-pandemic period in a cohort of 432,302 children ages 2 to 19. People who were already overweight or obese and younger school-aged children experienced the largest increases. In addition to weight gain, American children have experienced detrimental increases in stress, irregular eating patterns, diminished access to nutritious foods, increased screen time and lessened physical activity.

A dramatic increase in food insecurity is one of the major negative impacts COVID-19 has had on children. Experts from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health highlighted the alarming negative health consequences, finding that U.S. households with children who experience food insecurity doubled from 14% to 28%, impacting communities of color the most.

Food insecure children are more likely to have poorer health outcomes as they grow older. The researchers noted that limited access to quality nutrition through school programs and increasing unemployment rates have resulted in what are the highest rates of child food insecurity in decades.

In a 2020 literature review, researchers found that both food insecurity and pediatric obesity disproportionately burden low-income families. Thus, it is important to consider the influence of socioeconomic hardships as it relates to childrens’ health.

Both COVID-19 and childhood obesity are multifaceted issues. There aren’t any easy answers to solving these health crises. However, implementing programs and policies to encourage families to make healthier behavioral choices can certainly help.

At the University of Miami, we have addressed the issue by creating the Translational Health in Nutrition and Kinesiology (THINK) program, that targets adolescents in South Florida with an innovative physical fitness and wellbeing curriculum. It utilizes STEM based learning, hands-on laboratory activities, active engagement through physical activity, nutrition education and meaningful dialogue through the lens of social emotional learning.

During the summer, the adolescents participate in a six-week wellness program. We test several physical measures and conduct health-related surveys before and at the end of the six weeks.

As a THINK co-investigator, I have witnessed how adolescents see significant improvements in body composition and other measures of health. The physical benefits include: cardiorespiratory fitness, muscular strength, muscular endurance, power production, flexibility and agility. We have also observed improvements in social emotional learning and self-reported dietary behaviors.

After conducting the THINK program in 2019, 2021 and 2022, the greatest benefits to physical fitness occured in kids who participated in our program before COVID-19.

Adolescents who participated in the THINK program after the pandemic may have had fewer health benefits from the program because they generally engaged in less physical activity and had fewer school-based physical education classes, while having more sedentary behavior and psychological stress. Other studies of young people have also shown that the pandemic led to weight gain, reduced aerobic fitness and increased sedentary behavior.

Given our current circumstances, our research has shown that promoting daily physical activity can be very beneficial to several key physical fitness markers in as little as six weeks. Families should encourage their children to frequently participate in some form of physical activity, especially because there may be fewer opportunities to do so through school and community involvement.

Programs like THINK should be offered on a broader scale to at-risk school districts and communities. Increased governmental and financial support for these programs could serve as a valuable resource to support the welfare of our children. Furthermore, greater support for nutrition and exercise-related resources for all communities is crucial. For instance, the Heroes Act is a positive development in that it has expanded emergency relief for school meal programs and child nutrition services.

More funding for these programs and additional funding for physical activity education can better preserve healthy behaviors in adolescents. Increasing benefits from food assistance programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the Women, Infants and Children program can also alleviate poverty-related limited access to quality nutrition.

The global pandemic has clearly demonstrated that urgency can drive progress. Why can’t we do the same for the sake of our children’s health?

Joseph Bonner has a master’s degree in Nutrition and is a current third year doctoral student in Exercise Physiology at the University of Miami.