- New research shows obese or overweight are children eating an extra meal and more junk food daily.
- Participants are also sleeping longer and spending up to five more hours staring at screens.
BUFFALO, N.Y. — Children who were already obese or overweight before the emergence of COVID-19 have likely seen their physical condition worsen over the past few months of lockdown, according to a new study from the University at Buffalo.
Researchers examined 41 overweight children from Verona, Italy, and found that their diets, sleep patterns, and exercise levels had all ben negatively impacted by lockdown measures.
During the months of March and April, examined children were eating an entire extra meal per day, consuming more junk food and red meat, and drinking more sugary beverages. Moreover, they were sleeping for another half hour and spending nearly five additional hours in front a screen each day!
Simultaneously, exercise frequency dropped by almost two hours per week.
To be fair, though, the kids seemed to keep up with their usual vegetable regimen.
“The tragic COVID-19 pandemic has collateral effects extending beyond direct viral infection,” says Myles Faith, PhD, UB childhood obesity expert and co-author on the study, in a release. “Children and teens struggling with obesity are placed in an unfortunate position of isolation that appears to create an unfavorable environment for maintaining healthy lifestyle behaviors.”
“Recognizing these adverse collateral effects of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown is critical in avoiding the depreciation of hard-fought weight control efforts among youths afflicted with excess weight,” he adds.
For decades it’s been observed that kids tend to gain weight during summer vacation each year, probably due to a lack of school-mandated exercise. So, the study’s authors pondered if being stuck home due to COVID-19 lockdowns would have a similar effect.
“School environments provide structure and routine around mealtimes, physical activity and sleep – three predominant lifestyle factors implicated in obesity risk,” Faith explains.
Diet, sleep, and exercise information from all 41 participants were collected three weeks into Italy’s mandatory coronavirus lockdown and then compared to data collected on those same children a year prior. All of the kids were already participating in a long-term Italian study.
The ensuing results overwhelmingly indicated that overweight children have seen their lifestyles deteriorate during this lockdown period. While children of average weight have probably seen their healthy habits suffer as well, obese adolescents seem to be faring the worst.
“Depending on the duration of the lockdown, the excess weight gained may not be easily reversible and might contribute to obesity during adulthood if healthier behaviors are not re-established,” Faith notes. “This is because childhood and adolescent obesity tend to track over time and predict weight status as adults.”
Faith and his team think that governments and health agencies should keep factors like the effect of lockdowns on children’s health in mind while planning when and how to loosen restrictions. Faith also advocates for more robust telemedicine services and options for families that would encourage healthy lifestyle choices during lockdown periods.
The study is published in Obesity.