Confined to their homes amid the COVID-19 pandemic, children face an increased risk of obesity due to increased junk food intake, lack of socialization and physical activities, health experts warned.
COVID-19 is expected to possibly worsen the obesity problem in middle and upper socioeconomic groups, they said.
Disruptions to economic, food and health systems resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, health experts said, are expected to continue to exacerbate all forms of malnutrition.
The latest National Family Health Survey, conducted in 22 states in pre-pandemic times, presented a dire picture of the nutrition of children in the country.
While, on the one hand, it showed an increase in malnutrition in several states, the government survey also showed an increase in obesity among children in 20 of the 22 states surveyed.
A senior official said addressing obesity will be an important area of focus for the government under the recently launched Mission Poshan.
However, health experts have said that the possible implications of COVID 19 in worsening overweight and obesity cannot be ignored.
“COVID 19 is expected to potentially worsen the overweight situation in middle and upper socioeconomic groups, as the tendency of school-age children and adolescents and homebound youth to frequently eat or consume high-calorie snacks and empty nutrients, such as ‘namkeen’, cookies, bread, buns, noodles, ice cream, cookies and cakes, fried snacks, sugary drinks would increase.
“These items are rich in carbohydrates, sugar and fat and are routinely sought out and consumed to alleviate boredom,” said Dr. Sheila Vir, Director, Public Health Nutrition and Development Center, Delhi.
She said parents also encourage feeding with these items to meet the stress of the constant demand for food for younger children.
“In addition, these children who cannot play outside spend many more hours sitting in front of the computer or television,” he said.
Dr Sujeet Ranjan, Executive Director of the Coalition for Food and Nutrition Security, said that children in India are currently at double risk of malnutrition; Children are overnourished and suffer the effects of malnutrition.
“During confinement and restricted movement, children had limited access to socialization, play and even physical contact, which is essential for their well-being and psychosocial development. School closures prevented children from accessing learning and limited their interactions with their peers, ”he said.
Schools across the country were closed in March to contain the spread of COVID-19. They were partially reopened in some states as of October 15.
“The children felt confused and lost with the current situation, which generated frustration and anxiety, which only increased with overexposure to mass and social networks,” he added.
Warning about the harmful effects of obesity, he said that childhood obesity is associated with a higher likelihood of premature death and disability in adulthood.
“The lack of dietary diversity is one of the reasons for the increase in obesity, the overweight of children and high malnutrition. The change is diets and the consumption of foods high in carbohydrates and sugar has an impact on the health of children, “he said.
“Regular and excessive consumption of foods high in salt, sugar and fat leads to obesity and is a risk factor for many diseases. Sports for development (S4D) for physical fitness, a balanced diet and reduction of television are the four pillars through which obesity among children can be reduced, ”said Ranjan.
Dr. Somasekar Ramaswamy, professor of pediatrics at Madras Medical College, said that not only children, but obesity will affect adults as well.
“When it comes to children, one of the main causes could be online classes, while on the other hand, it could be working from home for adults. In both cases, they have to sit for hours with excessive consumption of junk food and almost no physical activity, resulting in an imbalance between calorie intake and expenditure, leading to accumulation of more weight, weeks after weeks. “, He said.
For the prevention of overweight in young children ages 6 to 23 months, Vir said caregivers should ensure that smart food choices and proper feeding practices are followed.
“Overfeeding a child, if he is undernourished before, should be strictly avoided. Television time should be restricted and playtime encouraged. Regular weight monitoring should be encouraged, where possible. In fact, the whole family should ‘eat right’ since the problem of being overweight in mothers is also associated with being overweight and obese in their children. Also get in the habit of checking the nutrient content that is printed on food packages, as per government / FSSAI policy, ”he said.
Interventions at the school and community level that promote awareness and education about healthy eating habits, lifestyle patterns, and regular exercise are essential to prevent obesity in children.
Strict advertising guidelines and media intervention to prevent false advertising of unhealthy foods by celebrities that children adore is another step in this direction, Vir said.
“Therefore, interventions at the biopsychosocial level using a multidisciplinary team approach constitute the cornerstone in the effective management of childhood obesity,” added Vir.