Pandemic Increased Childhood Obesity

Change is Now Critical, Say Pediatricians

Childhood obesity has become increasingly prevalent in America.

And evidence shows that the pandemic only made it worse – with pediatricians saying now is a critical time for those living here, who seem to be emerging from the far-reaching effects of COVID-19, to make changes in their family’s lives.

This is particularly relevant during September, National Childhood Obesity Month.

The issue of childhood obesity is one that pediatricians like Drs. Sharon Joseph and Mary Rose Puthiyamadam, who work at Open Door Family Medical Center sites in Port Chester and Sleepy Hollow, respectively, address frequently with patients and their families during office visits and in the supermarket tours they lead to educate and encourage parents and children on making healthy eating choices.

Studies on Obesity

Studies conducted prior to the pandemic, according to the CDC, showed that obesity was already a major problem in America, affecting 19.3 percent of children ages 2 to 19 years. (Compare this to the period between 1976 – 80, when just 7 percent of children 6 to 11 and 5 percent of adolescents were considered obese.) For children of color, the news was even worse: 25.6 percent of Hispanic children, and 24.2 percent of non-Hispanic Black children were considered obese.

A CDC study of children 2 to 19 years of age found that during the pandemic the percentage of obese children and teens increased to 22 percent. Another study by the University of Michigan and Kaiser Permanente found that among obese kids, expected annual weight gain increased from 8.8 pounds before the pandemic to 14.6 pounds.  Even those children who had a healthy weight prior to the pandemic saw their annual rate of weight gain increase, from 3.4 pounds to 5.4 pounds.

The consequences are more than cosmetic: Children with obesity are more likely to have Type 2 diabetes, risk factors for heart disease such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol, and muscle and joint problems. Furthermore, obese children are far more likely to become adults with chronic illnesses.

With indications that those living in America have largely returned to their pre-pandemic lives, Dr. Puthiyamadam calls now a “critical time” to educate families on the importance of a healthy lifestyle for their children. This includes stressing the dangers of additives and the addictive nature of sugar, eating a more balanced diet, and getting regular exercise. Not getting them headed in the right direction, she said, can be particularly serious at a time when, “We are seeing children as young as 9 years old with Type 2 diabetes and many children at 10 years old weighing as much as 140 pounds.”

She teaches “mindful eating” to help children develop a deeper connection with food in order to create lifelong, healthy habits. She also espouses a weight-neutral approach, with the goal to cultivate healthy habits – eating healthy, getting regular exercise – rather than using weight loss as an indicator of health. This may include changing what their meal plate looks like by adding more vegetables and plant-based foods and reducing starches, while at the same time remaining culturally sensitive.

“We can change how their plate looks and we’re trying to get them to see this,” said Dr. Joseph, adding that many immigrant families, who comprise a large share of the Open Door’s patients, soon pick up on the unhealthy aspects of the American diet – one that is rife with foods like hamburgers, French fries, soft drinks and pizza.

However, it was the pandemic that caused many of their young patients to take a further step back in the fight against obesity.

“Many of our kids sat at home, eating out of boredom or stress, and not exercising while they were cooped up at home,” she said. “By not having in-office visits, they missed out on the preventive care offered by the Open Door, in terms of services like access to nutritionists who can provide them with information about healthy and culturally appropriate meals. Among many of our families, parents couldn’t just say to their kids ‘go out to the backyard and burn off steam.’ They may not have had that option and their only exercise was walking to school or being in gym class, neither of which, for the most part, existed.”

Unlike children in more affluent families, where families could afford buying a bike or a dog to keep their children active, these were luxuries many Open Door patients couldn’t fathom.

“Children were eating and snacking on food when stressed, often mindlessly eating when bored and watching TV,” said Dr. Joseph. “If parents make poor eating habits, it’s passed through the family. Obesity doesn’t run in families, but poor eating habits do. Now is the time to change this.”

About Open Door Family Medical Center and Foundation

For over 50 years, Open Door has provided accessible, high-quality health care and wellness services, regardless of a patient’s ability to pay. Open Door offers family medicine, dental services, behavioral health care, women’s health including obstetrics, vision services, insurance enrollment assistance, and much more. Open Door operates health centers in Ossining, Brewster, Mamaroneck, Mount Kisco, Sleepy Hollow, and Port Chester, and a dental site in Saugerties. Additionally, Open Door runs a mobile dental van and nine School-Based Health Centers in the Ossining, Port Chester, and Webutuck school districts.

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