While healthcare systems across the world strain to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers are pointing to a potential long-term effect on public health that the lockdown could cause: an increase in childhood obesity.
In a recently published study, researchers from Smith College School for Social Work, Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, and the New York Academy of Medicine revealed that an increase in time spent out of school could exacerbate the risk factors for weight gain in children.
In a measure to contain the spread of the virus, schools across parts of America began closing during the second week of March. CNN reports that districts are preparing to possibly keep them closed until the end of the year. The study uses learnings from Hong Kong and Singapore to postulate that even if social distancing orders are ceased, it may have to be reinstated as and when the situation demands it. The research cites data which showed that children tend to experience unhealthy weight gain in the summer months when they are on a break from school rather than during the regular academic year.
Some of the factors that could influence an increase in the rate of obesity in school children during this time are:
Food insecurity due to missed school meals
The study states that in the U.S., over 30 million students receive free or subsidized lunches at their schools. The absence of such meals could result in food insecurity, which has been linked to weight gain and obesity.
Stocking up of non-perishable food
In light of the pandemic, the research suggests that households are stocking up on non-perishable items, which may also be richer in calories and highly processed. The researchers state that food items like crackers, ramen, noodles, and cereals saw a higher demand during this time leading them to believe that children may be consuming higher calorie diets during this period.
A decrease in physical activity
With schools and most parks and playgrounds closed, children, especially those who reside in urban areas, are witnessing a significant reduction in their physical activity. The paper further adds that online gaming usage has seen a rise, and an increase in screen time is associated with weight gain because of its sedentary nature and the tendency to snack more while engaging in it.
“Hispanic and African American kids are at higher risk of poverty and food insecurity, both of which are associated with unhealthy weight gain.”
Co-author of the study and an associate professor of epidemiology, Andrew Rundle commented that there could be long-term consequences of this weight gain in children. “Overweight and obesity experienced [during a] young age, as early as five years of age in our studies, places an individual at the risk of higher weight throughout adulthood,” he told Re:Set.
The study reiterates that Hispanic and African American children are more prone to weight gain. Rundle believes that this may be linked to the fact that these children have fewer opportunities for physical activities. “Hispanic and African American kids are at higher risk of poverty and food insecurity, both of which are associated with unhealthy weight gain and food insecurity is higher when school is out,” commented Rundle, who specializes in research to prevent childhood obesity. He pointed out that with the looming economic crash, more families are likely to experience food insecurity and that families facing economic challenges will depend on cheaper, processed foods that are high in calories.
To counter the public health challenge of growing obesity, the researchers suggest a variety of measures, starting with addressing food insecurity. They believe that providing grab-and-go meals at school sites or providing meals via school buses along their regular routes could be useful solutions. They also advocate for incorporating and prioritizing physical education as schools expand their remote teaching capabilities, further emphasizing that educational institutions should also look into sending home lesson plans for physical activity alongside their regular coursework.