Childhood Obesity: A Pandemic

The best way to fight this pandemic is to begin at home

By Barbara Pierce

Jennifer D’Onofrio
Jennifer D’Onofrio

A startling 57% of the nation’s children will be obese by age 35 if current trends continue, reports a sobering new study. 

The research goes beyond the fact that overweight children become overweight adults. It suggests that obese children face substantial peril in a world where obesity could soon be the new normal.

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, childhood obesity rates drastically increased, both locally and nationally,” said family nurse practitioner Jennifer D’Onofrio, of the Mohawk Valley Health System Whitesboro Medical Office.

“Childhood obesity has been a growing pandemic on its own over the last several years. COVID-19 only exasperated the problem,” she added. “During the pandemic, children lost access to the nutritious meals and daily physical activities of school. Many families stocked their pantries with processed high caloric food, resulting in poor diets for everyone.”

The lifestyle changes that were necessary during the pandemic—staying home, loss of access to nutritious food at school, regular routines—especially impacted children, stressed physician Daniel Gilmore, the director of health for Oneida County Health Department.

“In recent years, Oneida County has seen an improvement in the percentage of children and adolescents with obesity,” Gilmore added. “But, because of the changes the pandemic brought forth, we expect some challenges to these gains made in the recent past.”

Prior to the pandemic, the decrease in obesity in children and adolescents resulted from initiatives developed by Oneida County Health Department that focused on nutrition and physical activity.

The goal to reduce obesity in our children and adults was perhaps in part prompted by a 2015 Gallup Well-Being Index that found the Mohawk Valley to be one of the top 20 fattest areas in the U.S.

According to the CDC, the percentage of children affected by obesity in the U.S. has more than tripled since the 1970s. Data from before the pandemic shows that nearly one in five school-age children was obese. Current data is not known.

Factors contributing to childhood obesity include genetics, eating, level of physical activity, metabolism, lack of sleep and negative childhood events.

Dan Gilmore
Dan Gilmore

Why is this important? 

Childhood obesity can lead to several health-related conditions that involve multiple systems of the body, explained D’Onofrio. It can cause high blood pressure and high levels of cholesterol and other fats that cause narrowing of the arteries, and place the child at an increased risk for heart disease as an adult. Obesity creates an increased risk for diabetes, prediabetes, and can lead to fatty liver disease.

Additionally, children who struggle with obesity can have psychological difficulties, including social isolation, anxiety, depression and can be victimized by bullying, D’Onofrio added.

What can parents do? 

“The best way to reverse the obesity trend and lower the risk for chronic health conditions begins at home,” said D’Onofrio. “Parents need to do everything they can to provide healthy food options. I encourage parents to start educating their children by setting healthy boundaries on snacking, meals, portion size and caloric intake.”

Limit calorie-rich temptations, as well as the consumption of sugar and saturated fat. Provide plenty of vegetables, fruits, and whole grain products.  Use low-fat milk and dairy products. Instead of juice or soda, encourage your family to drink water.

“Monitoring food intake alone isn’t enough,” continued D’Onofrio. “Children need at least 60 minutes a day of physical activity.”

Today, children have multiple options for electronic diversion. On average, children spend four and a half hours each day in front of a screen.

“Trying things like family activities without electronics and making children earn their screen time through exercise are great ways to create healthy lifestyles,” said D’Onofrio. 

What can the community do? 

Genetic factors cannot be changed. However, people and places can play a role in helping children achieve and maintain a healthy weight. Changes in the environments where children spend their time — like homes, schools, and community settings — can make it easier for them to access nutritious foods and be physically active.

Schools can adopt policies and practices that help children eat more fruits and vegetables, eat fewer foods and beverages that are high in added sugars or solid fats, and increase daily minutes of physical activity.

“In an effort combat childhood obesity in past years, the Oneida Health Department has worked with the community through specific initiatives focusing on both nutrition and physical activity,” said Gilmore. “Looking ahead, the health department will continue to work with community partners to increase awareness of nutrition and physical activity.”

No challenge is more urgent than protecting the health and safety of our children — now and as they grow. The fight against childhood obesity can start in the home, but also requires the support of communities.

The results last a lifetime. All children deserve a healthy start in life; it’s our responsibility to make that possible.