Combating the Rise of COVID-Based Child Obesity

dr. julia nordgren explains why child obesity is rising during the pandemic and which foods can help

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Health experts are noticing a rise in child obesity during the pandemic, The Washington Post reported. Causes of the surge are multi-layered, from a lack of outdoor activity to a constant nearness to the kitchen. Dr. Julia Nordgren, who is also a trained chef, has answers.

Obesity concept
Less physical activity and easy access to snacks contribute to the increase in child obesity during the coronavirus pandemic. Photo By Marija Stepanovic / Shutterstock

According to The Washington Post, statistics of child obesity are staggering compared to the past. “A study released this month by Trust for America’s Health, which based its findings in part on 2019 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Behavioral Risk Factors Surveillance System, found that 19.3% of Americans ages 2 to 19 are obese, compared with 5.5% in the mid-1970s,” the article said.

While some of that data is based on pre-COVID statistics, things have only gotten worse during the pandemic. Dr. Julia Nordgren, Pediatric Lipid and Obesity Specialist at Palo Alto Medical Foundation, discussed the health crisis and ways to fight back. In this first half of our two-part discussion, she addressed the child obesity crisis during the coronavirus pandemic and which foods to implement into the family diet.

How We Got Here

Dr. Nordgren said she’s seeing the biggest weight gains in pediatric obesity in her career. This can lead to prediabetes in children, among other health risks. In order to solve the puzzle of child obesity in 2020, we first have to identify its pieces.

“I think there’s a really big piece of it [which is] that kids have lost their daily opportunities for movement, and you can’t underestimate just getting out of the house and walking around and having school and sports and physical education,” Dr. Nordgren said. “So without these opportunities, kids have dropped significantly in terms of their activity level, so their bodies need a very different intake to meet their needs when their needs are different.”

She said she’s noticed that not only are we not adjusting to those new needs, but that while kids are at home, they’re faced with more visual cues of eating. “We’re never far from the kitchen, so there’s a lot more opportunity for eating and snacking,” she said.

“Our home eating environment has become really important at a time when families have fewer resources. They’re working from home. They’re trying to juggle keeping their jobs and keeping the kids in mind for their Zoom classes. So, the time they might have otherwise given to cooking or to prepping vegetables, you just see a big reduction in that time, and in energy [given] to eating well.”

Fighting Back in the Kitchen

Dr. Nordgren’s Audible book How Superfoods Work focuses on foods like steel-cut oats. While they’re not a bad focus for eating right, she said families don’t need to restrict their food intake that narrowly in order to help combat child obesity.

“I would say [concentrate on] a dietary pattern that’s focused on very nutrient-dense foods,” she said. “So it’s having a core diet that’s mostly founded in very nutrient-rich foods like superfoods: beautiful, dark green leafy vegetables; lots of fruit; lots of cruciferous vegetables and raw vegetables, salads, all different colors; whole grains; lean proteins; plant-based sources of proteins, in addition to lean meats and fish; also nuts and seeds.

“A collection of all those foods being the foundation of a dietary pattern, that’s what’s gonna get kids healthier.”

In the second part of our exclusive interview with Dr. Nordgren, we’ll discuss the concept of children who are “picky eaters,” whether that term still has merit, and how to get them to widen their food horizons. Look for that article next week on Wondrium Daily.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

Dr. Julia Nordgren, MD, contributed to this article. Dr. Nordgren is a Pediatric Lipid and Obesity Specialist at Palo Alto Medical Foundation. She obtained her medical degree from Dartmouth Medical School.