Recent reports are quite concerning with regards to the effect of the novel coronavirus on the childhood obesity rates in the United States.

The pandemic has shed light on how food insecurity, access to health care, poverty, and unsafe neighborhoods all affect the rates of childhood obesity. Rhode Island, sadly, is listed as the eleventh-worst state in the nation.

We are also seeing that obesity has been a worrisome predisposing condition for contracting and having poor outcomes with the coronavirus.

Why is childhood obesity on the rise?

The pandemic has changed so many things in our lives.

  • School closures due to the pandemic often means children have not had access to regular meals provided by the Federal School Breakfast and Lunch Programs.
  • There has also been no formal physical education. In addition, the before school and recess programs such as Recess Rocks, sponsored by Blue Cross and Blue Shield in collaboration with Playworks New England and Rhode Island Healthy Schools Coalition, which were aimed at increasing physical activity were suspended during quarantine.
  • After school sports were suspended and now are taking place in a limited fashion.

All of these changes have had an impact on children and can contribute to the rise in childhood obesity we are seeing. Even while in-person classes and sports have resumed and the health departments provide reassurance that school is safe, many families are opting for remote learning as a safer option.

An epidemic during a pandemic

The rise in our obesity rates in children and adolescents is very worrisome. We know that if we do not reverse this pattern, our children will be at risk for the many comorbidities associated with obesity.

Every organ system in the body has the possibility of being affected by obesity. The following are all conditions associated with obesity that children could face:

What can families do?

There is a simple strategy that can help. It’s called “5210 Every Day.” First developed by Maine Health, this approach has now spread across the country. It is a very effective technique to teach children healthy habits and nutritional guidance, which can lead to significantly healthier lifestyles. The goal for every day is:

  • 5 Fruits and veggies
  • 2 Hours of screen time
  • 1 Hour of physical activity
  • 0 Sweetened beverage

To help you use the 5210 Every Day strategy, be creative in how to support each of the four components.

  • Grow a small veggie garden and have children help. They are more likely to eat what they grow. This can be done even in a small area, or with indoor hydroponic gardens.
  • Go to a farmers market. SNAP recipients can get two for one bonus bucks.
  • Take your child to the grocery store and have them help pick out fruits and veggies.
  • Try 1 new fruit or veggie every week.
  • Incorporate 1 fruit or veggie with every meal.
  • Do not buy processed foods as snacks, such as chips and sweet baked goods. These are occasional treats, and not daily snacks.
  • Offer fruits and veggies with each meal and snack.
  • Have fresh cut veggies and fruits in the refrigerator for hungry children to easily “grab and go” instead of less nutritional snacks.
  • Teach your child to cook. There are so many on line resources including the University of Rhode Island’s SNAP Ed program.

Shut off the TV, laptop or tablet, then:

  • Play a board game.
  • Do a physical activity with your child.
  • Have children help with household chores and reward their work with a fun activity you can do together.

An hour of exercise might include:

  • Taking a walk together. Check out Explore Rhode Island to discover the many land trust walks available to us locally in Rhode Island.
  • Do some fun indoor exercises. You can find some at Reeboks Kids or the Planet Fitness site.
  • Find some of the many YouTube exercise videos that are appropriate for children.

Do not purchase soda or any sweetened beverages. There has been extensive research on the effects of sweetened beverages on childhood overweight and obesity. Treat sweet beverages as an occasional treat and not an everyday thing.

While the 5210 Every Day strategy may seem like a simple message, it may be hard to consistently implement with your child. Try working on only one strategy at a time with your child. Remind them that as a family you all want to be healthier.

For more information on children’s health and nutrition, feel free to visit the Hasbro Children’s Hospital Healthy Eating Active Living Through Hasbro (HEALTH) website and download our HEALTH Brochure to see what’s happening in the Hasbro Garden.

Celeste Corcoran, MD

Dr. Celeste Corcoran is a board-certified pediatrician in the Lifespan Physician Group practice at Hasbro Children’s Hospital.