The pandemic is changing the way young people eat and how they feel about their bodies: 4 essential reads

The pandemic is changing the way young people eat and how they feel about their bodies: 4 essential reads

Kids, like adults, cope with stress and anxiety in many different ways.

For example, while some children reach for more snacks to deal with uncomfortable feelings, others overexercise or restrict their eating in unhealthy ways. As a result, rates of obesity and eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia have both increased among young people during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Here are four recent articles from The Conversation’s archives that deal with kids, body weight and the COVID-19 pandemic.

1. Child obesity

Many programs over the past four decades have tried to get kids in the U.S. to eat healthier food and exercise more often. Despite these efforts, child obesity rates have continued to increase – particularly during the pandemic.

Amanda Harrist and Laura Hubbs-Tait, child obesity researchers at Oklahoma State University, designed an intervention that actually lowered kids’ body mass index, or BMI.

The key factor that made their program succeed where so many others before failed? A focus on acceptance from family and friends, they say.

In their study of over 500 first graders, Harrist and Hubbs-Tait found that lessons on diet and exercise alone do not help kids at risk for obesity to slim down. Just as important, they say, is teaching new family dynamics and reducing the amount of rejection children face. That means showing parents how to emotionally support and comfort their children who are overweight, and teaching classmates to be more accepting of one another.

“Knowing you can come home and talk about how angry and sad you are is essential to healthy physical and mental growth,” the pair write. “And children must also have friends and peers who accept them for who they are.”

2. Eating disorders

Physician Julia Taylor and psychotherapist Sara Groff Stephens specialize in treating eating disorders in teens and young adults, which spiked after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

When it comes to eating disorders, they say, three groups of young people are often overlooked: young male athletes, LGBTQ youth and “normal”-sized adolescents. This last group includes young people who are average weight or even overweight, but may develop dangerously abnormal vital signs, electrolyte imbalances or severe gastrointestinal issues due to their unhealthy dieting.

“The recent COVID-related increase in patients presenting for care has reinforced that no group is immune from them,” Taylor and Stephens write. “Breaking down barriers for identification and treatment for all individuals – including boys, sexual and gender minority youth and kids across the weight spectrum – will improve outcomes for those who struggle with these significant illnesses.”

3. Weight stigma

The COVID-19 pandemic has been hard and stressful for everyone – and being critical of people’s bodies doesn’t help, argue Nicole Giuliani, Nichole Kelly and Elizabeth Budd, psychology professors at the University of Oregon who are also moms with young children.

The scholars believe health research and health initiatives place a disproportionate emphasis on kids’ weight. This draws attention away from better predictors of chronic disease such as smoking, lack of exercise or poor mental health. And it also reinforces weight bias, which they describe as “the belief that a thin body is good and healthy, while a large body is bad and unhealthy.”

Weight bias, in turn, contributes to bullying and teasing, which are common among youth and linked to disordered eating and depression, as well as poorer academic performance and health.

“To best support the physical and emotional health of children during this pandemic, we suggest reducing the emphasis on body size,” Giuliani, Kelly and Budd write.

They offer five tips for parents, which range from avoiding words like “fat,” “obese” and “overweight” to noticing when kids feel bad about their bodies after spending time on social media, and encouraging them to take a break.

4. Social media

To support the health of kids, stop focusing on their weight

To support the health of kids, stop focusing on their weight

Since the pandemic started, people of all ages have gained weight. At the same time, the rate at which youth and young adults are seeking treatment for eating disorders, particularly anorexia nervosa and binge eating disorder, has increased.

While the reasons for these changes are complex, pandemic-related stress and weight bias — the belief that a thin body is good and healthy, while a large body is bad and unhealthy — are prominent contributors.

As researchers who study health behaviors and are also parents of young children, we often see health research and health initiatives that place a disproportionate emphasis on weight.

That’s a problem for two big reasons.

First, it draws attention away from better predictors of chronic disease and strategies to address these factors. Although a high body mass index, or BMI, is one risk factor for various chronic diseases, it is only one of many, and far from the strongest. And while moderate weight loss does reduce chronic disease risk for some people, about 80 percent of individuals who manage to lose weight regain it. The other 20 percent describe their ongoing efforts to maintain their weight loss as stressful and exhausting.

Second, disproportionate emphasis on weight reinforces weight bias. Weight bias, in turn, contributes to weight-related discrimination, like bullying and teasing, which is common among youth. Across diverse samples surveyed, 25 percent to 50 percent of children and adolescents report being teased or bullied about their body size, and these experiences are linked to disordered eating and depression, as well as poorer academic performance and health.

To best support the physical and emotional health of children during this pandemic, we suggest reducing the emphasis on body size. Below are some specific tips for parents, teachers and medical providers.

1. Stop using the words ‘fat,’ ‘obese’ and ‘overweight’

When asked, children and adults with larger bodies consistently indicate that these are the least preferred and most stigmatizing terms to talk about body size, while “weight” and “body mass” are the most preferred.

So, consider modeling less stigmatizing language. For example, if your teen refers to her friend as “overweight,” respond by saying, “Yes, your friend does have a larger body.” Likewise, if your doctor refers to your child as “obese,” ask them to share their “body mass index percentile” instead. Or, better yet, ask them not to talk about weight at all, which leads us to our next recommendation.

2. Focus on health behaviors

Physical activity, eating habits and emotional support from friends and family are stronger predictors of disease and death than BMI, and all of these have been greatly affected by COVID-19.

Considering that behavioral weight loss programs are ineffective for the majority of people, we recommend focusing on behaviors that are more easily changed and have stronger influences on health and well-being. Regular physical activity, for example, improves mood and lowers risk for heart disease and type 2 diabetes, even in the absence of weight loss.

Don't Focus On Kids' Weight Gain. Focus On Healthy Habits Instead

Don’t Focus On Kids’ Weight Gain. Focus On Healthy Habits Instead

It’s a conversation I’ve had with many of my fellow parents in recent months, as our children have reunited at park play dates, and soccer matches: We’ve noticed our kids put on some extra weight during this pandemic, and we’re not sure what, if anything, we should do about it.

“You are not alone,” says Dr. Sandra Hassink, medical director of the American Academy of Pediatrics Institute for Healthy Childhood Weight. “This is happening to many, many people.” She says the pandemic created “the perfect storm for having issues with weight gain,” with its mass disruption of school, sleep and physical activity schedules, as well as stress and social isolation.

“I think everybody’s shifting upward,” she adds. “Kids that were in the healthy weight range are shifting upward. Children with obesity are shifting upward and children with severe obesity are shifting upward.”

Weight is an incredibly fraught topic — and an imperfect indicator of health. As parents, a kid’s sudden weight gain can be hard to know how to tackle.

The last thing we’d want is to set the stage for poor body image or eating disorders for our children. “If we focus on weight, that can cause so many other problems,” says Anna Lutz , a registered dietitian in Raleigh, N.C., who specializes in family feeding issues.

Instead, Lutz and other experts say parents should focus on they’re supporting healthy habits in their kids. Here are what doctors and specialists who work with kids say about what to do — and not to do — to get your family back on track. Do: Check in with your pediatrician to see whether the weight gain is outside the norm

A pediatrician can help assess whether your child’s weight gain is just part of their normal growth pattern, says Lutz.

Kids grow at different rates, and healthy kids come in all shapes and sizes, she explains. “But where we might get concerned is when a child veers off of their growth pattern significantly.” So, for instance, a kid who has been growing consistently along the 25th percentile and then suddenly jumps to the 90th, that might be a signal that something’s going on.

If so, the pediatrician may suggest ways to slow the rate of weight gain so that a kid’s height can catch up, Hassink adds.

Your child’s doctor might also want to make sure that a child isn’t developing health problems like elevated cholesterol, fatty liver disease or sleep apnea. Or, a sudden jump in weight could be a signal of other health issues. “There could be something going on emotionally that’s interfering with someone’s eating or movement. It could be a change in medication,” says Lutz.

“A lot of things happened during COVID to maybe make us a little less healthy,” says Hassink. She recommends that parents assess their family routines and figure out what got out of whack during the pandemic.