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COVID-19 and Childhood Obesity: What Parents Can Do According to a Local Pediatrician

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Dr. Mason Gomberg of White Plains Hospital Physician Associates explains how quarantine can impact your child’s weight and health, plus what you can do about it.

Parents are obviously concerned for their children’s health right now, between traditional COVID-19 symptoms, the rare but seemingly associated Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome, and just the daily risk of carrying and transmitting the virus between other at-risk groups. Still, there’s one other health risk that shouldn’t be discounted during quarantine: childhood obesity.

Citing a JAMA Pediatrics journal article published just at the start of the pandemic on current and future treatment methodologies of adolescent obesity, Dr. Mason Gomberg, a pediatrician at White Plains Hospital Physicians Associates with offices in Somers and Yorktown Heights, highlights for us how continued social distancing and canceled activities can lead to an increase in childhood weight gain and, with it, a host of related diseases.

How COVID-19 Can Unexpectedly Affect Your Child

Obesity in adolescence has already reached epidemic proportions around the world. As a result of necessary COVID-19 restrictions, we’re finding that children have even less opportunity to play with friends and exercise, and as they return to school, gym classes and organized sports will likely be suspended. Now parents are challenged with the task of juggling their remote work schedules while also monitoring their children’s remote learning, computer and TV time, and worries related to COVID-19.

Photo courtesy Dr. Mason Gomberg; White Plains Hospital Physician Associates

Childhood obesity has been a top concern for years, so a lessening of activity during this time is going to have a long-term impact on pediatric health. We’re testing more children for Type 2 diabetes and finding more instances of pre-diabetes conditions in children. We’re seeing abnormal liver function tests in older overweight children and teens, which may be a sign of fatty liver disease. Overweight children are also more prone to sleep disturbances such as sleep apnea.

Being overweight can threaten your child’s ability to achieve their full potential as a healthy, happy, productive adult. In our office, we are treating teens with Type 2 diabetes with a diet and exercise regimen, dietary counseling, and if that fails, with daily medication (Metformin or insulin).

Recent studies have shown that eye, skin, and kidney problems resulting from diabetes occur faster in teens than adults. There are many other obesity related risks, as well, including liver disease and cirrhosis, hypertension, sleep apnea, heart conditions, and depression. The good news is that most of these issues are reversible in children or teens.

What Parents Can Do to Help Prevent COVID-19 From Affecting Children’s Weight

The lure of 24/7 streaming and video games during COVID-19 restrictions is contributing to lack of activity and development of weight-related chronic diseases in children. Here are some tips to help:

  • Limit TV or video game time to no more than two hours a day. Unplug well before bedtime.
  • Parents can try to “tag team” when working remotely. Trade off and take breaks to get children running, biking, or walking outside throughout the day.
  • Institute the “five finger challenge.” Every day kids should consume two fruits and three vegetables (or vice versa), while also eliminating sugary drinks and unhealthy snacks.
  • Prioritize sleep. Children need between 8-10 hours a night. Turn off screens a few hours before bedtime — the blue light from LED screens interferes with sleep cycles.
  • An exercise regimen of 20-30 minutes at least 3-4 times per week for all teens and adults goes a long way in weight management. Pick up a jump rope for 10+ continuous minutes per day — this is a great aerobic activity for parents and kids!
  • Be supportive. Remind kids that this is a difficult time and that you’re there to help and support them every step of the way.

Parents need to reassure their children that this is temporary, they are safe, and the inconvenience is a small price to pay in order to stay healthy. Remind them about wearing a mask, social distancing, and good hygiene practices. Parents can even help their child personalize a cloth mask that can be worn over a surgical or N95 mask.