After more than a year without the typical social opportunities and physical movement that comes with a traditional school day and childhood activities, experts fear that childhood obesity is on the rise. And a look at kids ages 2 to 17 who were treated at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Care Network clinics found exactly that. Before the pandemic, from June to December 2019, 13.7% of kids who came in for treatment were obese. That rose to 15.4% between June to December 2020.
“Having any increase in the obesity rates is alarming,” Dr. Sandra Hassink, medical director for the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Institute of Healthy Childhood Weight, told WebMD. “I think what we’re seeing is what we feared.”
It’s not hard to imagine what happened. We’ve all survived an incredibly challenging year. For kids, that meant virtual school, pauses for sports teams, dance lessons and other activities, more access to screens and snacks and lots of stress, which can lead to weight gain.
But Camden E. Matherne, an assistant professor at the UNC School of Medicine and Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders, cautions parents about what they should do next if they fear their child has added on a few too many pounds.
“The hope is that if there’s been weight gain over COVID, once back into normal life, that will stabilize,” Matherne said. “As a parent, the important thing to remember is that, generally speaking, weight loss is not indicated for children in adolescence.”
Unless there is a significant health problem that requires the attention of a pediatrician or specialist, the plan for children in adolescence is one of prevention, she said.
“Kids are still growing, which means we want to stabilize weight during growth, which promotes BMI leveling out over time,” she said. “Even for pediatric obesity treatment, the goal is regular eating of balanced food, regular activity and a healthy lifestyle.”
So instead of putting your child on a diet or signing them up for some weight loss app, here’s what Matherne recommends.
Make moderation your mantra
“I really encourage families to think about not focusing so much on good, bad, right wrong,” she said. “That is going to backfire.”
That line of thinking can lead to unhealthy behaviors like hiding food or binge eating. Instead, make moderation your mantra.
“It’s all food in moderation,” she said. “And adopt a family-based approach that everybody needs to move their body. Everybody needs to limit their screen time. … Everybody needs to get outside.”
Make it less about needing to exercise and more about getting outside, seeing the sun and moving your body, she said.
Be mindful, set schedules
Some kids pick up a snack or two simply because they’re bored. Encourage them to be mindful about not eating simply because of boredom and help them find something to keep them busy. At the same time, create a regular schedule of eating that sets out specific times for meals and snacks. Good sleep, which requires a regular schedule too, also is important for managing appetite hormones, she said.
“Sticking with a routine is going to help everybody,” she said.
Don’t restrict a food group
Maybe we all ate too much ice cream last year, but that doesn’t make ice cream or dairy bad. Don’t restrict food groups, Matherne said. And don’t talk about avoiding foods because they make you fat.
Take a sugar-sweetened beverage. We don’t ban them because they cause us to gain weight. “We limit them because that much sugar is not good to help your body grow,” she said. Talk about the kinds of foods that help a child grow strong, she said, but also allow fun foods because everything in moderation.
Watch what you say
Many of us have our own unhealthy relationship with food and weight. Don’t let that spill over to your kids. Don’t talk about how you’ve been “bad” because you just ate that piece of cake or French fries. Don’t tell them you only exercise to lose weight.
“Actions speak so much louder than words,” Matherne said. “A lot of kids that come in for an eating disorder, it’s not the parents’ fault. It’s just what it is. Mom and dad have possibly done Atkins or something that put more attention on good ways and wrong ways to eat. The truth of it is that any food in moderation does not promote excessive weight gain.”
If parents plan on starting a diet that might eliminate some food groups, Matherne recommends that they don’t discuss it with their child.
“You want to talk about your body in a way that talks about how it functions and of being grateful,” she said. “Show value for things outside of your body — kindness, generosity and creativity. And that’s true for mom and dad too. Your kids are watching … I just can’t emphasize it enough.”
Allow for grace
If you’ve packed on a few pounds, give yourself grace. And give your kids plenty of grace too. “This has been a really hard year,” Matherne said. “The majority of kids, once they get back into activities, things are going to level out. And we need ot have a good degree of grace for ourselves because it’s been unprecedented.”
Said Matherne: “Nobody is going to escape this year without some battle wounds. So try not to over worry. Try to focus on balance and regularity and having fun. Because it’s been hard for everybody.”