New Study: COVID-19 and Childhood Obesity

If you already have children at home or you are about to have your first, you should know about an important study on childhood obesity in the time of COVID-19 or another pandemic. Closing schools has become a common response to the COVID pandemic. Besides the obvious damage this causes to a child’s education and socialization, a new study from researchers in the United States and Italy warns of a new danger, obesity.

The study is reported in the journal Obesity. The researchers looked at the effect of school closings on children’s diet, activity, and sleep during three weeks of a COVID lockdown in March 2020. The researchers were testing a hypothesis that overweight children, when removed from the structure and activities of school, will be at increased risk for obesity. The hypothesis is based on previous research showing that children gain more weight during summer recess.

A previous study that followed over 18,000 U.S. children from kindergarten through second grade, found that children who become overweight or obese gained excess weight almost exclusively during summer vacation, not during the school year.

The Study

The study took existing data from 4 Italian children already taking part in an overweight and obesity study in 2019. Prior to COVID lockdowns in Italy, data had been collected on their diet, activity and sleep. The researchers took advantage of the lockdowns to see how much three weeks if being out of school and homebound would affect their baseline data over a 3-week period.

Key Findings

Compared to the 2019 data, during 3 weeks of lockdown:

  • The children ate the equivalent of one extra meal every day.
  • They slept on average 30 more minutes each night.
  • They increased time spent in front of a TV or computer device by a whopping 5 hours per day.
  • They ate more red meat, sugary drinks, potato chips and other junk food.
  • They spent 2 hours less time doing physical activities.

What This Study Could Mean for Your Child

Childhood obesity is a dangerous epidemic. The researchers warn that it is hard to get control of weight gain in children and hard to keep control of hard-fought success. Excess weight gained in childhood tends to extend into adult years, with all the health risks of adult obesity.

The researchers urge policy makers to consider the danger of obesity when closing schools. This adds to the growing realization that schools may be the safest place for children during a pandemic. CDC director Robert Redfield says that schools should not be closed during the coronavirus pandemic, because they provide a safe place for children.

The key takeaway for parents is that if your child is forced to be out of school, or even just home from school for normal vacation or summer recess, don’t let you guard down on the need for a healthy diet, regular hours for sleep and meals, limiting screen time, and encouraging physical activity. Once a child becomes overweight; it can be hard to reverse course and get back to a healthy weight.

Source: Effects of COVID-19 Lockdown on Lifestyle Behaviors in Children with Obesity Living in Verona, Italy: A Longitudinal Study, Obesity, April 2020

Christopher Iliades
Dr. Chris Iliades is a medical doctor with 20 years of experience in clinical medicine and clinical research. Chris has been a full time medical writer and journalist since 2004. His byline appears in over 1,000 articles online including EverydayHealth, The Clinical Advisor, and Healthgrades. He has also written for print media including Cruising World Magazine, MD News, and The Johns Hopkins Children's Center Magazine. Chris lives with his wife and close to his three children and four grandchildren in the Boston area.

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