Kids and teens are already struggling to learn outside the classroom during the pandemic, but lockdowns and quarantines are also making it hard for them to control their weight, child health experts say.
Lost routines, economic insecurity and grief are making things more challenging for children who struggle with their weight, whether it's with obesity or anorexia, according to doctors at Stanford Children's Health in California.
When stay-at-home orders and online school became widespread, many young people were no longer participating in sports or even walking the halls at school.
"Everyone's activity level has changed drastically," said Dr. Elizabeth Shepard, medical director of the pediatric weight clinic at Stanford Children's Health's Center for Healthy Weight. "Overall, we've seen excessive weight gain during the pandemic. For some kids, that puts them suddenly into the range of overweight or obesity, and that can be quite detrimental to their health over the long term."
Other children are struggling with eating disorders and losing dangerous amounts of weight, said Dr. Neville Golden. The number of patients hospitalized through the Stanford Children's Health's Comprehensive Eating Disorders Program for the medical complications of eating disorders has been at its highest level in decades, noted Golden, chief of adolescent medicine, who treats patients in the program.
"I've been in the field for over 35 years, and in 2020 I saw some of the sickest patients I've ever seen," Golden said in a Stanford news release. "It's not just those who were living with eating disorders before. Many people have developed eating disorders during this pandemic."
Teens' heightened anxiety, depression and feelings of loss have contributed to the rise in eating disorders, Golden said. Some may also feel sad about events they have missed during the pandemic.
Shepard's patients are also dealing with anxiety and depression, she said. One or both parents may have lost their jobs, making it harder to afford healthy, fresh foods. Some are unable to maintain regular mealtimes.
The experts offered several tips for increasing healthy eating at home.
Regular mealtimes are important. They can both reduce too frequent snacking and also ensure everyone is eating meals.
Keep healthy foods consistently available. Parents should not restrict foods from one child while allowing them for other family members, Shepard advised. "Healthy eating is for everyone, and treats are for everyone," she added.
"One of the real decision points for healthy eating is what you bring into your house," she said. "It's very difficult to say 'don't eat it or don't drink it' about foods already in your home. You want to have healthy foods that you enjoy and that taste good. You can have some treats, but moderating how much you bring home is important."
For children and teens whose weight is low, Golden recommends that parents take charge of preparing three meals and two snacks a day, and sit with their child while they eat.
"Even that simple advice can really help a family in crisis until they get to see us," he said.
Both experts encouraged families to call their child's pediatrician with weight concerns. Many programs are now offering some elements of weight management through telemedicine.
"We need people to know that it's safe to bring your child to the hospital or medical system to be evaluated," Golden said, adding that this is true both for underweight and overweight individuals. "We're very careful about preventing COVID-19 transmission, with frequent COVID testing, appropriate personal protective equipment, hand-washing, social distancing and so on."
The American Academy of Pediatrics offers tips on healthy food choices for families.
SOURCE: Stanford University, news release, March 17, 2021