Increased screen time and cancelled sports due to the pandemic could be having an unintended consequence on kids.
“We're concerned that being out of school and just not being as active as they normally are, are going to contribute to increased obesity,” Diane Schanzenbach, director of the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University, said.
Dr. Rebecca Unger, a pediatrician at Northwestern Children's Practice, said she is already seeing concerning weight gain in some of the children she treats.
“I've seen many children who we see sort of a change for the worse in terms of the weight to height relationship,” Unger said.
The coronavirus pandemic could be compounding a problem that was already a big concern.
“One third of kindergartners in the city of Chicago were obese. About half of sixth graders were obese, and you know, if we see a 10 or 20% increase of that because of COVID-19, you know, that will wipe out basically a decade's worth of progress on this,” Schazenbach said.
Health experts said they have been working to fight childhood obesity for years. While the rate has fluctuated year to year in Illinois, it has dropped overall. That metric is expected to change after the coronavirus pandemic has to led to profound food insecurity.
“Here in Chicago, the most recent data that we have indicates that 26%, more than one out of four people with children, say that they are food insecure,” Schazenbach said.
Financial hardship has families making hard choices.
“It's more expensive to eat healthy, so families are going to grab more unhealthy foods, fast foods,” Unger said
Unger recommends families pre-plan snacks to include fruits and vegetables; limit sugary drinks like juice and soda; and keep kids moving whenever possible.
“Even a tiny study break, they're running up and down stairs or turn on music or romp around the block in a short amount of time. Every little bit helps,” Unger said.