Growing concerns surrounding childhood obesity in the U.S. have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic between 2020 and 2021. Research shows that one in five children struggle with obesity nationwide and more experience overweight. Virginia Tech professor Vivica Kraak says the combination of obesity, food insecurity, and COVID have increased children’s risk of poor diet quality and increased obesity.
A recognized expert in U.S. food and nutrition policy, Kraak says that nearly 29 million American adults and 12 million children are at risk of food insecurity, especially families from racially and ethnically diverse communities who also have a higher risk of obesity and chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes that may be complicated by COVID-19.
“The combination of not eating enough healthy foods and healthy beverages, such as water, low-fat or non-fat milk, and being more sedentary by spending hours at home in front of a screen and not taking physical activity breaks may increase children’s obesity risk,” says Kraak.
Kraak also says that children and teens may also be less physically active, especially during the winter months, which increases their risk for weight gain and obesity.
“Many children are engaged in blended learning, going to school for some days and learning from home other days, or learning remotely from home full-time rather than attending school to reduce the risk of COVID transmission among themselves and to their parents,” says Kraak.
She says that millions of U.S. children who are learning remotely from home may not receive a nutritious breakfast or lunch if they qualified for the federal school meals programs and may receive meals-to-go delivered to their homes or their parents may receive pandemic-EBT benefits to buy nutritious foods for their children in place of the school meals.
“We need to encourage parents to provide a nurturing and structured environment for their children at home including eating meals at a set time every day, encouraging fruits and vegetables and whole grain options as snacks, and to have a set time to go out and be physically active for 30 to 60 minutes a day to maintain a healthy weight,” says Kraak.
Kraak also points to concerns surrounding health equity and populations that could be more at-risk. “Health equity means all children in the U.S. will have a fair shot at living the healthiest life possible, and no one is disadvantaged because of their social position or circumstances.
“Children in racially and ethnically diverse households whose families are disproportionately affected by job losses, low income and food insecurity resulting from COVID are at highest risk of unhealthy weight gain and obesity,” says Kraak. “Their families need extra help to achieve health equity.”
VT professor Vivica Kraak has more than 25 years of professional experience combined from academic settings and non-governmental organizations.
Her career includes working as a part-time research fellow at Deakin University’s World Health Collaborating Centre for Obesity Prevention and the Population Health Strategic Research Centre, School of Health and Social Development in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia; serving as the nutrition and physical activity advisor for Save the Children’s U.S. after-school obesity prevention program serving rural children in 12 states; and staffing several expert consensus committees convened by the Food and Nutrition Board, Institute of Medicine at The National Academies in Washington, D.C.