Bay State kids battling pandemic pounds - and parents are worried

Elaine Thompson, Telegram & Gazette

Children in Massachusetts have gained almost 10 pounds on average since March when schools, parks, playgrounds and other activities shut down as people began staying at home due to the coronavirus pandemic, according to a recent survey.

The survey of 5,000 parents in states along the East Coast shows children under 16 in Massachusetts gained 9.8 pounds on average, 2.8 pounds more than the average weight gain of 7 pounds regionally.

Massachusetts had the second-highest amount of weight gain only to New Jersey, where children added an average of 10.2 pounds. Maine (6 pounds) and Connecticut (5.5 pounds) rounded out the ninth and 10th spots on the top 10 list.

The other New England states, Rhode Island (2.1 pounds), New Hampshire (2.4 pounds) and Vermont (3.3 pounds), gained the least weight on average since March.

According to the survey, which was conducted by health and fitness site Total Shape, 55% of the parents said they are concerned about their child’s recent weight gain and attributed it to a reduction in daily exercise (53%) and a change in diet (31%).

Dr. Jennifer Bram, an associate professor of pediatrics at UMass Medical School in Worcester, said it is not hard to imagine that weight gain could be a secondary effect of the quarantine and kids being out of school. With parents delaying coming into the office due to the coronavirus, pediatricians’ ability to actually weigh and measure children is delayed. She said it should be of concern for parents as they navigate these challenging times.

“I’ve definitely had parents speaking with me by telehealth telling me ‘I think my child is gaining weight and I’m concerned,’ ” Bram said. “We know when parents are worried about this ... if they notice it, that means there is an issue.”

Bram said she encourages parents to go back and look at the eating practices. A lot of families have moved away from eating three meals a day to now a lot of kids are snacking and grazing, and eating on the fly throughout the day. As opposed to sitting down for a meal with the family, there is a lot of “mindless” eating in front of TV, computers, iPad screens and other electronics.

Physical movement is so important to health and weight control, but many people have been inside and not moving at all. As Americans, we already had a pretty significant lack of exercise before the quarantine.

Now, it’s much worse for kids because they are not going to school and getting physical activity like in gym or during recess. Families living in the inner city don’t have space outside for their kids to play. Parks, playgrounds and other public spaces were shut down during the state of emergency.

Bram said some studies on how kids tend to gain weight during summer, similar to during the quarantine, show that they don’t lose the weight when they re-enter school. They tend to continue to gain. They don’t gain as much, but they don’t tend to lose the weight they gained over the summer, she said.

“That’s the real danger here. That if we’re not paying attention and don’t start working to stem the weight gain now, we’re just going to see more kids becoming obese,” said Bram, who is also medical director of the Good Fit Teen Weight and Wellness Clinic at UMass Memorial’s Children’s Medical Center.

She added that parents’ modeling healthy eating and exercising is critically important. “If parents really try to partner with their kids on healthy behavior, they can really have an impact that can change their health for the better.”

That’s what Regine Muteck, who lives in the Burncoat area in Worcester, has done with her 10-year-old son, Engelbert, and 13-year-old daughter, Marilyn. When the lockdown began, Muteck, 42, would go to the basement of her home each morning, put on some Makosse music from her native Cameroon in Central Africa, and dance and exercise. One day, her daughter came downstairs, liked the music and joined in. The next day, her son was part of the early-morning routine.

Because the basement did not offer fresh air, the family, along with Muteck’s 69-year-old mother, Claire, began walking to the athletic field at Quinsigamond Community College. They found at 6 a.m., there were only one or two other people there. They circle the quarter-mile field seven times, then do some pushups in the center before making the 10-minute walk back to their house, where they often do some yardwork. Afterwards the children play outside while Muteck goes in to begin her remote public health work by 9 a.m.

“In the beginning, they felt like it was too much. I said, ‘No, it’s not. You’re going to like it. Let’s just try it and see,’ ” Muteck recalled. “Now they’re ready to go to the field before I am.”

Muteck also supervises whatever her children drink or eat and makes sure they don’t consume sugar every day. The family meals include a lot of vegetables and fruit. They have a garden in the backyard, as well as blueberry bushes and apple and pear trees that were there when they bought the home in 2016.

Muteck said the stress caused by the uncertainty and fear of the coronavirus is a major contributor to children’s as well as adults’ weight gain. She said she does not let the stress overpower her.

“Whatever food they can afford or see, they will just eat it. But I educate my children. I tell them the pandemic is here. But it’s not the end of life,” she said, pointing out that she teaches them to be healthy and to follow medical experts’ recommendations for preventing spread of the virus. She also teaches them about the health risks that Blacks in particular face when they do not eat properly or exercise.

“I’m building something that will help them in the future. I taught them that life is the way you want it to be,” Muteck said.

One in three children and adolescents in the U.S. are overweight or obese, according to A Healthier America. Children who have obesity are more likely to become obese adults. The extra weight puts them at risk for several serious health, psychological and social problems, including high blood pressure and high cholesterol, which can lead to cardiovascular disease; Type 2 diabetes, asthma, sleep apnea, fatty liver disease, gallstones and joint problems.

Obese children are also at higher risk of anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, bullying and stigma.

Dr. Celeste C. Corcoran, an assistant professor at the Warren Alpert Medical School at Brown University and a pediatrician at Hasbro Children’s Hospital in Providence, has worked with overweight and obese children for more than 30 years. She is co-director of Healthy Eating Active Living Through Hasbro (HEALTH), which she established three years ago.

According to its website, the clinic seeks to improve the significant problem of childhood obesity and to prevent the co-morbidities that ensue in later adolescence and young adulthood.

Corcoran cautioned that it’s hard to know how accurate the survey containing self-reported data is because it is not a scientific study. It also depends on which population and demographics were surveyed. But, if the survey findings are accurate, Corcoran has several thoughts on why kids in Rhode Island have gained the least amount of weight on average since March than kids in the other East Coast states.

Rhode Island kids under 16 gained an average of only 2.1 pounds – nearly 8 pounds less than kids in Massachusetts.

One reason is that when in school, children are exposed to sugar-laden drinks like juice and flavored milk for breakfast and lunch. They likely drink fewer sugary drinks at home because many parents have learned through the HEALTH clinic and other programs that sugar causes cavities and add weight, which can lead to health problems.

Corcoran is also chair of the 5-2-1-0 subcommittee for the Washington County Health Equity Zone and steering committee for Rhode Island Food Fitness and Fun. The 5-2-1-0 program, which originated in Maine, recommends five daily servings of fruits and vegetables, two hours or fewer of recreational screen time, one hour of physical activity and zero sugary drinks.

Corcoran said Rhode Island has also taken advantage of the federal government’s pandemic EBT cards. In addition to the grab-and-go lunches provided to schoolchildren, more than 70,000 have received $387.60. As the families receive more money, they are more likely to buy fruits and vegetables and more healthy foods.

“I honestly feel the families providing regular meals that kids are consuming and possibly less sweetened beverages have contributed to our better statistics in Rhode Island,” Corcoran said. “We’ve been trying to get the sweetened beverages out of school lunches for a long time unsuccessfully.”

Jennifer Hall, a pediatric nutritionist at UMass Memorial Medical Center, said the worst thing that parents can do is beat themselves up about the weight their kids have experienced.

“It’s not to take it lightly. The point is the more stressful and hysterical you become about it, the worse the problem becomes,” she said. “The more successful approach is to be calm and address this as a family lifestyle change ... not talk to your child about snacking too much. Or tell them they have to exercise every day. If a child feels singled out, they’re going to start sneaking food and it’s going to be more of a problem.”

Hall said many layers contributed to the weight gain.

A lot of families cooked more wholesome meals than they had time to do before. But, for some families, access for food was an issue. The only way they could get to the store was by bus and they were frightened to take the bus. They could only walk to a local neighborhood store with a limited supply because it couldn’t keep up with the demands.

Some families trying to balance working and home schooling were stressed and couldn’t wrap their head around preparing a meal or they didn’t have the time.

As far as physical activity, some families were not comfortable allowing their children to go outside, even in their backyard. Not every child or family is motivated to use an exercise video. But it would be easy to just put on some music and dance or walk up and down stairs, Hall said.

But now parks are open again and people are far more comfortable going outside. Parents have to accept the priority of doing fun and leisurely physical activities as a family. She suggested going for walks or riding bikes together. People should also continue with some of the positive components of home confinement.

Hall said she stocked up on beans, a nutritious high-protein meat alternative.

“What they can do is recognize that they went off the rails a little bit or had some changes in their eating habits intentionally or not, and move forward,” she said. “They should use it as motivation to commit to health living ... healthy movement and healthy eating. This is not the time to stick your kid on a diet or buy a treadmill and order them to go on it.”