A significant portion of adults in the United States put on weight during the pandemic, a phenomenon some are calling the “COVID 15.” But how did the lockdown affect our children?
Obesity affects nearly 1 in 5 children, with higher rates among communities of color. A review of research on childhood obesity during the pandemic indicates that what was a problem before COVID-19 is even more so after the last two years of altered behaviors.
On this episode of Curious Campus, UWM’s podcast about science, discovery and culture, we chat with two experts in childhood obesity: Julie Snethen, a professor and director of the PhD program at the UWM College of Nursing, and Cindy Greenberg, dean of the College of Health and Human Development at California State University, Fullerton.
Below is a portion of that conversation. Listen to the full show at WUWM.com or on your favorite podcast app.
How did this research project get started?
Snethen: We had already considered childhood obesity to be an epidemic. Then came this pandemic and those two things kind of collided. All of the sudden children are home all day, they’re sedentary and bored. And when they’re bored, they’re grabbing for a snack more. A lot of my friends were saying, “We can’t keep the place stocked because the family is eating so much.”
I don’t think we realize how much stress children have experienced during this pandemic. And one of the ways people alleviate stress is through eating. Think about other ways that children relieve stress. It’s usually through play and physical activities. Then suddenly, that wasn’t possible. Also, face-to-face socialization is also an important element for potentially relieving stress.
And so we were fully expecting to see weight gain among children across the board, and we were very concerned for those who had excess weight to begin with.
Could you talk about the role of stress in weight gain?
Greenberg: The body reacts to most stressful situations with what’s called the “fight or flight” response – the body secretes hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. And those hormones release sugar from the reserves in the body so it can be used to power the muscles and brain in a survival situation. But if it’s ongoing stress, your appetite increases and cortisol can cause cravings for sweet and fatty foods.
Being overweight also increases inflammation in the body. When the excess nutrients enter the cells that store fat, they start a cellular stress response that results in sustained cortisol production and chronic inflammation, which impacts how efficiently you metabolize food.
For groups that have been economically or socially disadvantaged who might not have access to resources, safe environments or stable housing, that stress remains chronically elevated. That makes it even more difficult to maintain a healthy weight.
What are a few things that parents can do, especially if they have also gained weight during COVID?
Greenberg: The decision to try to adopt healthier habits is the first step. Children are more open to tasting new foods if they help prepare the foods. So involving them in the meal preparation is a good way to help them be more willing to try new foods. Children are also very open to trying new foods that they’ve grown themselves.
Snethen: Talking about weight loss is demoralizing to both children and their parents. Instead, I would suggest really focusing on what we can all do to get healthy. Approach it as a family. Take the kids shopping with you and see how many different colors you can put into the basket. What are some berries or fruit that the children really like?
Also, instead of sitting down after meals and watching TV, the family can go for a walk or walk the dog together. Get creative. One mother told me that she would turn on the music and she and the kid would do scarf dancing. What a great idea. I’ve also seen families walking the malls in the winter when it’s really cold.
If kids see their parents eating the carrots or salad as opposed to french fries, chances are they’re going to eat those veggies too.
Why are processed foods not as good for you?
Greenberg: Food that’s in natural form – fresh vegetables and fruit, whole grains, eggs – those are what we call whole foods. And with industrialization, people started eating more processed foods, which have been modified from their original forms. Often that means they are stripped of nutrients, such as vitamins, minerals and fiber.
Processing also adds sugars, salt, fats, chemicals to improve appearance or increase the shelf life. In addition to processed foods, being more calorie dense, Americans are just eating more. According to a Pew Research study, the average American consumed about 23% more in 2010 than they did in 1970.
Snethen: There’s so much misinformation in advertising of products. It may say, “it’s healthy because it’s whole wheat.” But when you look more carefully, you learn it’s loaded with fat or sugar. So read the labels to guide your decisions.
For example, instead of white rice, choose brown rice because it’s going to give you more roughage and fiber that you need to be healthy.