Childhood obesity ranked as a public health crisis before COVID-19 changed day-to-day life last year – and the problem only grew worse during the pandemic.
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Efforts to limit the spread of the coronavirus created an atmosphere that led to unhealthy weight gain among youth. Researchers link the excess pounds to factors such as remote learning (goodbye recess), reduced opportunities for physical activity and diets heavy in calorie-dense, highly processed foods.
The worry is that increasingly overweight kids and adolescents may be establishing a pattern that leads to a lifetime of weight and health challenges, says nurse practitioner Jennifer Brubaker, PhD, FNP-BC.
“Kids who struggle with their weight in childhood are more at risk for all of the chronic medical conditions that overweight adults are prone to – like Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke,” says Brubaker.
Nearly 1 in 5 children in the U.S. are classified as obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Higher rates were reported among Hispanic (25.6%) and Black (24.2%) youth.
“It’s one of the greatest challenges our kids face today because in general they’re doing less physical activity and are exposed to a variety of unhealthy options, like junk/processed food and excessive screen time,” notes Brubaker.
If your child is overweight, you play an important role in helping them establish healthier habits that will carry into adulthood. The most effective way? Focus on their physical and mental health, Brubaker recommends.
Leading by example and encouraging small changes to the behaviors that contribute to a child’s unhealthy behaviors can get them on the right track.
Is my child overweight?
Evaluating whether a child who’s still growing needs to lose weight can be confusing and thus should be left to a professional.
“Children should gain weight as they’re growing and getting taller,” Brubaker explains. “The question is, is their weight gain proportionate to their height gain?”
During annual well-child visits, your primary care provider will determine if your child’s BMI percentile — which takes into account the fact that kids grow at different rates depending on their age and sex — falls within a healthy range (between the 5th and 85th percentile).
But weight and BMI are only part of the equation. “We’re assessing general health, and there are a lot of factors that go into that, including diet and lifestyle,” she says.
For children who are overweight, it’s best to steer clear of specific weight loss goals, Brubaker says. “It’s more about the healthy behavior changes than the number on the scale,” she says. “I would rather have a patient come in and tell me, ‘I’m exercising five times a week,’ than say, ‘I lost five pounds.’”
Practical ways to help
Here are five ways parents can help encourage those healthy behavior changes:
- Be a good role model. Living a healthy, active lifestyle and choosing nutritious foods are the best things parents can do to help their kids be healthy, Brubaker says. Including the whole family in a healthy eating and exercise plan keeps overweight kids from feeling singled out. “Households where parents can be active with their kids tend to be more successful in achieving a healthier lifestyle,” she says. Start a family soccer game in the backyard, or hit the trails for a weekend hike.
- Create a healthy environment at home. It seems simple, but creating an environment with minimal temptations also requires the whole family’s buy-in. “If we are putting our children in situations over and over again where unhealthy choices are confronting them on a daily basis, that’s very unfair,” Brubaker says. Keep healthy snacks for kids around, and unhealthy ones out of the house.
- Reward children with something other than food. Did your kid bring home a report card showing straight A’s? That’s great! Instead of ordering from the local pizza joint to celebrate, offer up something active like getting a pair of roller blades, going kayaking or a picnic day at the park with a Frisbee.
- Cook as a family. If they’re involved in preparing their food, kids might be more likely to try certain things they wouldn’t otherwise eat, Brubaker suggests. “For families that are super motivated, having a garden and getting the kids invested in growing their own food is a good way to encourage fruits and vegetables, and it’s also a good way to get the kids more active,” she says.
- Stick to annual well-child visits. A primary care provider is a key source of knowledge and support for both kids and parents. “Unfortunately, sometimes well-child visits get overlooked in the period where the kids are most likely to really start to gain weight,” Brubaker says. Commit to making sure your child sees their provider annually.