‘Why is my child gaining weight?’ This was a common question that parents especially asked during the coronavirus pandemic. Doctors say that ever since the pandemic, cases of childhood obesity have shot up drastically. When Mumbai-based couple Aditi Gupta and her husband Vivek Gupta learnt that their nine-year-old son had put on 15 kgs in two years, they got worried. Their concern was about the health complications that would arise with weight gain at such a young age and hence they decided to change their lifestyle.
Aditi, a software engineer tells Happiest Health that her son was 24 kilos when he finished grade 1 and was about to start grade 2 when the pandemic struck. Aditi says that she did not check her son’s weight often thinking she might end up adding pressure on him, making him conscious about his appearance.
“His lifestyle had completely changed and as parents, we were also to be blamed. With the fear of getting infected with covid, we did not let him go outside and encouraged indoor games which stopped him from being physically active,” she says.
Aditi says that even before she could realise how bad it could be her son had already gained 15 kilos more by the beginning of 2022.
Doctors see an increase in cases of childhood obesity during pandemic
“Every second child turning up at the outpatient department has been in the overweight and obese category,” says Dr Mayuri Yeole, associate consultant, paediatrics, Apollo Hospitals, Bengaluru. “Childhood obesity has become a serious health issue among the paediatric population.”
Dr Sreevidya S, chief consultant and head of department, paediatrics and neonatology, Altius Hospital, Bengaluru, too has noticed a rise in cases of childhood obesity in the recent past. “Obesity is multifactorial and starts with the genetic make of a person, which cannot be modified. However, additional factors like nutritional, behavioural and environmental are largely modifiable. Covid restrictions have made these factors more challenging to tackle,” she says.
Childhood obesity can take a toll on your child’s health
Dr Yeole says, “according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, approximately 14.4 million kids in India have excess weight, with the rise in obesity being attributed to unhealthy food choices and lack of physical activities. The covid times have especially taken a toll on physical health among children. Along with this, we have observed an increased prevalence of type 2 diabetes, obstructive sleep apnea, gastroesophageal reflux and polycystic ovarian disease (PCOD) among children and adolescents”.
According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, obesity in children and adults increases the risk of health conditions such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol which are risk factors for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, breathing problems such as asthma and sleep apnea, joint problems such as osteoarthritis and musculoskeletal discomfort, gallstones and gallbladder disease. Childhood obesity is also associated with psychological problems such as anxiety and depression, low self-esteem and lower self-reported quality of life and social problems such as bullying and stigma.
Vivek recalls the time when his son resumed school and started to throw tantrums to skip classes as he had become conscious of his weight. “Children can become very sensitive. Though as parents we never made him feel he was obese, we couldn’t prevent his friends from teasing him for gaining weight; he took it to his heart. He even refused to go to school. He told me that he struggled to play with his friends and couldn’t run like before. Weight gain affects mental health too,” he says.
How school from home affected children
Aditi says that with classes being online, her son would just sit in one place and not move. “He had stopped eating on time and would also end up sleeping till late in the morning until his classes started. He would be on his bed and attend the classes while we were away from him,” she recalls.
‘COVID-19 and childhood obesity (CO-BESITY) in the era of new normal life’, a paper published in the Journal of Public Health Research, 2021, points out the practice of ‘school from home’ as one of the reasons for children experiencing the problem of obesity. ‘Due to the pandemic, children lost their precious school life, which aided their physical and mental fitness by diverse activities like interaction with their peers, mandatory physical activity and much more,’ it says.
According to a report by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, published in 2021, ‘in a longitudinal cohort of 432,302 persons aged 2–19 years with outpatient visits, the monthly rate of increase in BMI nearly doubled during the pandemic when compared to the pre-pandemic period.’
Why did children gain weight during the pandemic?
Dr Sreevidya says that an obesogenic environment (one which tends to cause obesity) is the biggest risk factor for weight gain. “Long hours on electronic gadgets in the name of education, attractive advertising and easy access to calorie-dense, high-carb snacks and drinks, little or zero time given for physical activity due to fear of covid have led to the worsening of the obesity pandemic,” she says.
Aditi says that her son had become lethargic and would binge on junk food in the evening while watching television. “There was no physical activity for two years and he had become used to this lifestyle,” she says.
How can parents help?
Doctors stress that people, especially parents, must play a more proactive role to contain the rise in childhood obesity. “We as individuals and parents have to take a step,” says Dr Yeole.
“Keeping kids restricted to a healthy diet or following a particular diet is practically impossible. So, having a healthy colourful meal – including vegetables and fruits – should be encouraged. Have meals together with kids since they grow up looking at what adults do and how they behave. Junk food cannot be kept out of reach of kids but can be restricted and access can be limited,” Dr Yeole says.
“One can inculcate a reward-gaining attitude by allowing their favourite meal once in 15 days or 20 days – something which I have personally practised with my patients; this has shown good results. Also, with schools and playgrounds opening, enrol your child in outdoor activities which will be an add-on to lead a healthy and fit lifestyle,” adds Dr Yeole.
Is there a solution?
“Since it is not a single cause, there’s no single solution,” says Dr Sreevidya. “Obesity can be largely reversed with a customised nutrition plan, increasing physical activity and close monitoring with a paediatrician or nutritionist. More importantly, there is a need for frequent moral support to continue working towards healthy choices. Promoting awareness of childhood obesity and its ill effects, building a healthy school environment with more time for physical activity, a family-centred approach by consuming healthy meals and targeting parental nutritional education and general welfare are the keys to preventing and treating childhood obesity in the coming decade.”
Aditi says that, together with her husband, they helped their son lose weight without making him feel uncomfortable. “We spoke to our paediatrician who recommended we change his diet and start physical activities. We did not want to send him to different classes to lose weight because that would only add more pressure on him. We decided to do activities such as morning walks, cycling and evening swimming classes together, which have helped a lot,” she says.
Aditi says that her son lost six kilos in five months and is now more active and leading a healthy life.
I’ve got three kids and I must say this is very helpful!