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Childhood obesity: is the Covid-19 lockdown increasing it?

2 min read
AUTHOR: Matt Ridout

Childhood obesity has been a growing issue in the UK, but there are fears that the Covid-19 lockdown could enable a surge in childhood obesity as children spend a prolonged time away from school and in the home.

Obesity is a major public health problem, both internationally and within the UK. Being overweight or obese is associated with an increased risk of a number of common diseases and causes of premature death, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some cancers. The risk of poor health is strongly correlated with body mass index (BMI). This has been particularly evident during the coronavirus pandemic as obesity has been linked with more severe symptoms of Covid-19 and an increased risk of hospitalisation and death.

According to the Nuffield Trust, childhood obesity is associated with various health conditions, including asthma, early onset type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular risk factors. Children who are obese are also more likely to suffer from mental health and behavioural problems. In addition, being an obese child can have long-term health consequences, as childhood obesity is a strong predictor of adult obesity.

One in five children in Year 6 (aged 10-11 years) were obese in 2018/19 (20.2%). This is more than double the proportion of children in Reception who were obese (9.7%). Obesity in children aged 10-11 has increased by 2.7 percentage points since 2006/07.

New research from Italy suggests the lockdown is affecting children’s diet habits

New research from Italy is suggesting that the Covid-19 lockdown could be having a negative impact on child obesity. The study, which has been peer reviewed, aimed to see what affect being removed from structured school activities and confined to homes would have on children’s dietary habits, and whether it would lead to unfavourable trends in behaviour.

The sample included 41 children and adolescents with obesity participating in a longitudinal observational study located in Verona, Italy. Lifestyle information including diet, activity, and sleep behaviours were collected at baseline and three weeks into the national lockdown during which home confinement was mandatory. Changes in outcomes over the two study time points were evaluated for significance using paired t‐tests.

Results suggest poor habits increased

There were no changes in reported vegetable intake during the period studied, and fruit intake increased during the lockdown. By contrast, potato chip, red meat, and sugary drink intakes increased significantly during the lockdown. Time spent in sports activities decreased and sleep time increased. Screen time increased by nearly five hours per day in some instances.

Recognising these adverse collateral effects

The study proved that a collateral effect of the lockdown is to increase poor diet and behavioural habits of children who are already struggling to control their weight. It’s important for the industry and government to recognise this, as doing so will be critical in combating further increases in child obesity fuelled by the lockdown so that it’s impact is not long lasting.