Obesity rates in children have skyrocketed with the pandemic and remote learning. Here's how you can address it.
It’s no surprise that the pandemic, quarantine, and switch to remote learning have led to skyrocketing rates of obesity in children.
In a single year, rates soared from 13% to 15.4%, an all-time high, according to a recent study in the journal Pediatrics. Meanwhile, medical education addressing this problem is woefully lacking. Many pediatricians and family medicine physicians receive little to no training in the treatment of obesity in adults, let alone in children.
Complex, but addressable
Overweight and obesity are challenging diagnoses because the causes and treatments involve many factors. Weight is influenced by a complex interplay of nutrition, energy expenditure, genetics, sleep, emotions, socioeconomic status, culture, hormones, other diseases, medications, and environment.
The good news is that with the help of a knowledgeable medical professional, family support, and lifestyle changes, you can constructively address these health challenges with your children.
Choose your words carefully
If you’re concerned about your child’s weight, discuss it with your child’s doctor.
If your child receives a diagnosis of overweight or obesity, take care to destigmatize the language you use. For example, telling your child, “You can’t have dessert, you’re obese,” is bound to cause friction, if not permanent damage. Choose your words carefully; shaming, bullying, and labeling children will backfire and may scar them emotionally.
It is especially important to make sure treatment of the disease does not feel like a punishment. Conversely, food should not be used as a reward. The Obesity Medicine Association recently updated its pediatric obesity treatment guidelines, and one of the core tenets is to avoid using food as a reward.
Disband the "clean-plate club"
Another well-meaning, but ultimately destructive practice is “the clean plate club.”
Children who are encouraged or forced to eat everything on their plate will learn to ignore their body’s signals that they are satisfied, or even worse, that they are full.
The next step is to take a look in the mirror. How are you modeling healthy habits? What does your relationship with food look like? Do you prioritize sleep and exercise? Often the key to changing your children’s habits is to change your own.
Have a constructive conversation
Incorporating these steps, here’s how a constructive conversation with your child might look:
- Open by asking permission. Would it be OK to talk about a sensitive topic the doctor brought up?
- Use destigmatizing language and check for understanding. At your last visit, the pediatrician said you have obesity. What do you know about obesity?
- Stay fact based. The reason that I’m concerned is because children with obesity have a much higher risk of other problems like high blood pressure, high blood sugar, even cancer. Over time, these diseases can cause strokes, heart attacks, and death. It makes me sad to think of you getting sick. How does that make you feel?
- Listen. Respond. Drive home the point. I want you to know that the most important thing to me is your health and happiness. This is not about a number on the scale or how you look.
- Offer commitment and support. I want to work on health as a family. What are some things we can do together to eat better, exercise more, and get enough sleep?
- Reflect. Thanks for talking to me about this. I heard you say (recap your child’s responses). I can understand where you’re coming from, and I’m proud of you for opening up. I think we can take things one step at a time. What should our first step be?
Keep up the momentum
Once you've started the discussion, keep the door open for future conversations, but don't dwell on the subject. Instead, simply help your child steer toward healthier habits. Explore together activities in your area, whether outdoor exercising or indoor hobbies. Check with your local library, newspaper or other trusted online sources to find programs where you live.
With compassion, persistence, and teamwork, pediatric obesity can be treated. It might even save your child’s life.
This healthy advice has been provided by Dr. Alanna Hannegraf, a family medicine physician for PeaceHealth Medical Group in Oregon.