(K-LOVE Closer Look) – Millions of American kids suffer words like chubby or chunky – or fat – to describe their young bodies. The COVID-19 lockdowns only worsened already alarming levels of childhood obesity, as the CDC found the BMI (body mass index) in children ages 2-19 years old increase nearly doubled during the pandemic. Excess weight weakens growing muscles and joints and can lead to juvenile diabetes or even trigger life-threating asthma.
“Prevention is what we really want, right?” says Geri Henchy, Director of Nutrition Policy at the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC). “We want kids to be in environments that are not obesogenic; where they’re gonna get healthy meals, where there isn’t a lot of junk food, where they have activities -- that’s really gonna make a difference for kids.”
Many kids spend two mealtimes at school, making the school cafeteria a primary battleground for developing healthy habits. “They offer children school breakfast and school lunch and they also really support food security for people in low-income families,” Henchy explains, adding that food served to students must meet very strict nutritional standards. “Every meal has a meal pattern,” she says. “Lunch has to be a fruit and vegetable, there has to be a protein and there has to be a grain; there has to be milk.” Every facet of nutrition is considered. “Grains have to be wholegrain rich…juice has to be 100% juice.”
Schools also have federal standards to control junk food for sale a la carte in the cafeteria. Those rules “are meant to make that food less of a nutrition disaster -- and also to lower problems competing with the regular lunches which are healthy.”
Henchy says churches also play a major role in fighting childhood obesity as safe places for kids to be active. In addition to maintaining food pantries for families short on groceries, especially during the pandemic, “the other thing that churches can really do now is return back to supporting to hosting after-school programs and summer programs.”
Safe places to play and safe places to eat are key. “If we think about trying to have a healthy weight for kids, we really want to make sure they have places to go where they have healthy food.”
Home, of course is the most important place for kids to learn strategies to care for their bodies. Genetics can factor into bodyweight, but Henchy observes that lifestyle contributes to the severity of childhood obesity. “For some families, they might want to speak to their pediatrician, they might want a nutritionist to help them – if you’ve got a picky eater – if you’re trying to get rid of the baby weight -- they can help with tips.”
The CDC website suggests that every adult in contact with children can unite to lower the rates of childhood obesity:
Childcare providers, school professionals, community organizations, and parents and caregivers can:
- Serve fruits, vegetables, and other nutritious foods for meals and snacks.
- Be role models by eating healthy meals and snacks with children. Use MyPlate as a handy tool.
- Make water easily available throughout the day and limit sugary drinks.
- Limit time on non-educational TV and devices in childcare and the home.
- Support and encourage children and adolescents to be physically active every day.
- Encourage good sleep habits to help children and adolescents routinely get a good night’s sleep.
[Centers for Disease Control – updated June 2022]