A new study published in JAMA Pediatrics found that the prevalence of obesity in American children and adolescents ages 2 to 19 increased from 17.7% in 2011-12 to 21.5% from 2017-2020. Broken down even further, obesity rates spiked significantly in those aged 2 to 5 and 12 to 19, but not in 6- to 11-year-olds
According to Parents, these statistics strike a blow to parents and organizations like the NFL that have teamed up to get kids physically active and healthy through programs like Play 60. Dr. Amanda Stovall, an Illinois-based pediatrician, says many factors, but most noticeably the pandemic, negatively impacted these efforts.
“With school closures, cancellation of sports and activities, and less play dates, kids and parents alike have understandably become less active, spending more time at home,” Stovall says. “Even walking around school and grocery shopping can provide healthy activity, and people have not been able to do these daily activities.”
Screen time rose during the pandemic which also contributed to less physical movement. The new study found that Mexican Americans had the biggest increase in obesity, from 21.8% in 2011-12, to 27% in 2017-2020. They were followed by 19.5% to 23.8% increased rates in non-Hispanic Blacks and 15% to 18.4% in non-Hispanic whites. Stovall says that Blacks and LatinX children are more at risk for obesity and the pandemic exacerbated the systemic issues that contribute to obesity.
Dr. Dyan Hes, a leading pediatrician at Gramercy Pediatrics, says that although researchers did not break down obesity rates among children of low-economic status or living in poverty, she said she would not be surprised if they were also disproportionately affected.
“Children raised in lower-income communities have much less access to fresh food,” says Hes. “These neighborhoods are often called food deserts. In these neighborhoods, you may find a fast-food restaurant but no supermarket.”
Both experts acknowledge that discussing weight, food and physical activity with children can be tricky. According to Parents, you don’t want to cause body image issues while helping them learn and maintain healthy habits.
Here are some expert tips on how to discuss weight effectively with your children:
• Emphasize strength over appearance. Stovall advises talking about what bodies can do, rather than what they look like. Try saying, “Your legs are strong to help you jump high in ballet class,” instead of “You look pretty in your ballet outfit.”
• Avoid using food as a reward. It’s common to use treats and cookies to reward achievements but try to be more creative and find an activity that pleases your child. It could be reading a book together, or better still, going for a discovery walk around a new and exciting neighborhood or park.
• Make mealtime family time. Hes suggests having your kids help prepare dinner so that they learn about nutrition and ingredients. Making meals a family affair means sharing conversation, but not necessarily talking about food, adds Stovall, adding that you can comment on how tasty the meal is but don’t zero in on how much your child is eating — or not eating.
• Rethink dessert. Kids — and many adults — have a sweet tooth but you don’t have to have dessert after every meal. If your child wants to have a cookie after dinner, suggest they save the cookie for after tomorrow’s lunch. “If you are still hungry, have the spaghetti that’s left on your plate or more broccoli,” Stovall suggests saying.
• Make changes together. Hes says that the past few years have been challenging but now is the time to rebuild the foundation of good health for our children and ourselves. Building a healthy menu including five servings of fruits and vegetables daily, along with lean protein and whole grains, is a good start. Schedule in at least an hour of physical activity, which can be done by taking a family walk after dinner.
“If the family makes changes together, it is easier for the child to adapt,” says Hes. Local community centers like the YMCA offer programs for families to socialize and exercise together.
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