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Published on March 16, 2021

7 ways to avoid the COVID-19 weight gain in your children

Child Weight Gain

Childhood obesity was already labeled an epidemic long before the pandemic. Unfortunately, the pandemic created the perfect conditions for kids to gain even more weight – and they have. Pediatricians like Sharon Daley, MD, and her colleagues at Seaside Pediatrics in West Yarmouth have noticed that both children and their parents have gained weight in the past year.

“It started last spring when people were quarantined at home and then many kids have become less active,” Dr. Daley said. “There are fewer opportunities for them to do their usual sports and other group activities and they are exercising less.”

Another contributing factor is that remote learning consists of spending many hours sitting in front of a computer screen. On a regular school day, kids move around a lot more. They walk back and forth to the cafeteria and special classes like art and music. They move around the classroom gathering materials. Recess and gym classes offer the opportunity to get some much-needed exercise. All of that activity is missing now for students who are learning remotely. 

“And then, for many kids, there is easy access to food at home without the structure of school,” Dr. Daley said. “Many parents are working from home so they are unable to closely supervise the frequency of how often the children are going into the kitchen. Other families have experienced unemployment and financial hardships and unfortunately the cheapest and most filling foods are not always the ones that are healthiest.”

Dr. Daley has also noticed an uptick in disordered eating like binging and overeating as the result of the pandemic burdens of stress and anxiety. When so much of their life feels out of control, it’s easy for kids and teens to use food as a comfort.

Ways to Help

It’s been a tough year on everyone, so Dr. Daley doesn’t think parents should be too hard on themselves if their children gain more weight than recommended. Instead, she offers the following seven tips to help parents and kids get back onto a healthier track.

1. Limit processed foods as much as possible.

“And I do say limit because you have to live in the real world, she said. “Moderation is what we strive for. I tell kids to avoid foods that come in crinkly wrappers and they understand that.”

2. Control portions.

“I suggest when they do eat the processed snack foods, scoop a serving size into a little bowl instead of eating directly from the bag or the package,” Dr. Daley said. “That helps with portion control because if you keep putting your hand in the bag, you really don’t know how much you’re eating. But if you put some in a little bowl and say this is my serving, that’s a little bit more informative.”

On the same note, she recommends reading labels for nutritional information but also serving sizes. Many people don’t know the actual recommended serving size for the foods they eat. It’s often less than they think.

3. Eat at set times of the day.

“It helps to have structured meal and snack times, rather than grazing all day,” she said. “And eat at the table. Not on the couch. Not in the bedroom.”

4. Focus on enjoying the meal, not on watching television or sitting in front of a computer screen.

“You’re supposed to enjoy your food, but if you’re eating mindlessly because you’re watching TV, you are probably eating more calories than you need.”

5. Eat mostly for fuel.

It’s okay to eat purely for fun once in a while, but consider those things treats, Dr. Daley said. By definition, a treat is something special, not something you eat every day. An example would be enjoying a piece of cake at a birthday party, she said. But parents should make sure that most of the food their kids eat gives their bodies the healthy energy they need, not empty calories.

6. Get 30 to 40 minutes of exercise every day.

“The key is to make it part of the routine for everyone as a family,” she said. “It has to be fun, though, to become a habit. Kids can do outdoor play, go on neighborhood or beach walks, they could play catch or kick a soccer ball in the yard. Those kinds of things don’t require costly equipment or schedules or official teams.”

7. Don’t let cold or inclement weather deter your kids from getting exercise.

If it’s cold or snowy outside, just bundle the kids up. If it’s raining, try doing video workouts together or have family dance parties in the living room. Another idea is to host a Zoom dance party with extended family or friends.

“Those are the kind of activities that can bond families in this time of isolation,” Dr. Daley said.