COVID-19 Opened the Door to an Upswing in Childhood Obesity. It’s Up to Parents to Slam that Door Shut!

Childhood obesity in the U.S. is on the rise… again!

Numbers reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention prior to the pandemic (2017-2018) showed hard-earned efforts to reverse the growing trend of childhood obesity had worked. However, throughout the pandemic, as children spent more time on screens, less on the playing field and snacked their way through classes, those efforts have been undermined. Today, one in five adolescents are obese (overweight or obese) and obesity numbers following the onset of COVID-19 have risen 2 percent according to the CDC. Tragically, the impact is being felt disproportionately among low-income children and communities of color.

As a Pasadena mother and clinician working in family medicine, I see childhood obesity far too often in my patients, and the impact is staggering. The health risks of childhood obesity include diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, high cholesterol which in turn can translate into risks for complications of stroke, heart attack and kidney failure. Beyond the physical toll, childhood obesity can have an impact on a child’s self-esteem, socialization and can ultimately impact their ability to reach their full potential. What’s more, childhood obesity takes a tremendous toll on our healthcare system, especially given the fact that it often continues into adulthood causing future health complications.

While America was making headway in addressing this issue, the COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare many of our society’s social failures, including our inability to create equitable policies, systems and environments that ensure all children have the opportunity to live healthy lives.

The virus has highlighted our lack of a comprehensive approach to nutritional and physical education. From preconception to delivery and throughout a child’s growing years, governmental and institutional supports for children’s health and nutrition have whittled away, replaced by an increasingly toxic environment that preys on the appetites of young children. The promotion of a junk food, sugary drinks and screen time have left our children poorly nourished, under active, isolated and overweight. Supports for overwhelmed parents are in short supply as they struggle to provide the most conducive environment for children to thrive.

As a parent, I believe we must advocate for an aggressive investment  in a comprehensive program that helps educate both children and parents about both nutrition and physical activity. We need a comprehensive school curriculum that focuses on these core competencies for healthy living.

But a comprehensive approach goes beyond information. We need to demand funding for school physical activity and sports programs for all children regardless of socioeconomic status. Schools should be discouraged from serving processed & fried foods and instead offer fresh ingredients cooked to maximize the delivery of nutrients. Investing in youth recreational centers for every community is essential to reverse the re-emerging crisis of childhood obesity. We should expect and call on our healthcare systems to reward clinics and doctors who tackle this issue and include a visit with a nutritionist annually. Our advocacy needs  to span the multiple domains including those spaces where people learn, work, live, shop and pray. What we can’t do is allow the obesity backslide brought on by COVID-19 to be normalized.

As parents, childhood obesity is our collective problem and we have the means to address it. Children lack the emotional capacity to understand the seriousness of this health condition and how to manage it. We have to be their advocates and collaborate in a more coordinated, comprehensive way for the health of our children.


Dr. Lena Al-Saraff is a mother of four and lives in Pasadena. She practices family medicine in Los Angeles.

COVID-19 Opened the Door to an Upswing in Childhood Obesity. It’s Up to Parents to Slam that Door Shut!

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