Dr. Anthony Fauci and numerous other public health experts told us that lockdowns and stay-at-home orders were the best path to mitigation for COVID-19 coronavirus. But did they consider the health risks of those lockdowns. A new study reveals an unintended consequence: higher childhood obesity rates.
It doesn’t take a public health expert to tell you that if you keep kids home from school, away from sports and in the house, bad things will happen. It seems, however, as if nobody in the medical community, government or public health sphere took that into consideration when planning the response to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
As a result, we seem to have exacerbated what doctors and health experts have already called an epidemic in the US and around the world. A new study seeks to put some data on the problem and spell out how it happened, so that maybe, if we’re in this position in the future, this tragic outcome can be avoided.
Researchers at the University of Buffalo have released a study in Obesity which spells out just how COVID-19 lockdowns have negatively impacted children, obese children in particular, with regard to diet, sleep and physical activity. They studied 41 obese kids in Verona, Italy in March and April.
They compared the kids’ behaviors in those areas to their behaviors a year prior. What they found is somewhat disturbing. During the lockdown, their physical activity dropped by more than two hours a week. They also noted that the kids ate an extra meal each day, spent an extra five hours in front of a computer, TV or phone screen each day and slept an extra half hour a day.
They also saw a dramatic increase in the amount of sugary drinks, junk food and red meat consumed. Vegetable consumption remained unchanged from a year prior.
“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. “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,” says Faith, chair and professor of counseling, school and educational psychology in the UB Graduate School of Education.
Steven Heymsfield, MD, professor at the Louisiana State University Pennington Biomedical Research Center; and Angelo Pietrobelli, MD, professor at the University of Verona in Italy led the study.
Kids and adolescents in Italy, as in many countries, tend to gain weight during their summer vacations when compared to the school year. Faith and his team wondered if being forced to stay at home might have a similar impact on the children’s lifestyle, diet and behaviors.
“School environments provide structure and routine around mealtimes, physical activity and sleep — three predominant lifestyle factors implicated in obesity risk,” says Faith.
The 41 obese children and adolescents were part of an ongoing long-term study. The researchers collected data on activity, diet and sleep during a period three weeks in to Italy’s mandatory national lockdown. They compared the data to that gathered in the long-term study in the same period in 2019. They asked questions regarding the composition of the kids diets – how much red meat, vegetables, fruits, sugary drinks, pasta and junk food they ate. They also asked about eating habits, screen time, sleep habits and physical activity.
Their findings confirmed that children with obesity who are on weight control lifestyle programs really suffered setbacks during Italy’s national lockdown. But the implications are clear. If kids who were on weight control programs saw their habits slip and their weight rise, by extension, we can expect similar outcomes in other children under similar lockdowns.
“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,” says Faith. “This is because childhood and adolescent obesity tend to track over time and predict weight status as adults.”
Clearly, when public health officials, policymakers and government officials consider using lockdowns and stay-at-home orders in the future, they will have more to consider than just mitigation of a virus. They will need to consider the potential negative health outcomes for children and others.
Faith and his team believe there may be a role for telemedicine in helping to deal with these issues, too. Doctors and health workers may be able to counsel and encourage families to make healthier choices when they are locked down and can’t be as active as they normally might.
Whatever your position on lockdowns and stay-at-home orders, there’s no question that there’s more at stake long-term than mitigating a virus. Next time we’re in this situation – and that is a likely scenario – we will want to consider that before we act.
Keep the faith and keep after it!
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