Texas kids had the 8th highest rates of childhood obesity in the U.S. in 2019-20; 35.8% of Texas adults were obese in the same time period. There are no numbers yet to reflect the effect of the pandemic on weight, but Marjan A. Linnell, MD, Pediatrics at ARC Kyle Plum Creek, among others, have anecdotal evidence to lead them to expect the pandemic numbers will be worse.
Dr. Linnell recently told the Austin American-Statesman that in the first year of the pandemic, she saw significant weight increases during wellness checks. This second year of the pandemic, Linnell said, "We're not seeing the weight velocity going up as much, but we haven't recovered." Linnell says that the improvement she is seeing is related to kids getting back to routines, including being in-person at school and rejoining after-school activities.
But, Dr. Linnell has cautioned, of the patients she's had to admit to the hospital because of COVID-19, all have had higher body mass indexes and tend to be teenagers. A CDC study published in December 2021 found that 61.4% of the 12- to 17-year-olds hospitalized for COVID-19 in 6 hospitals in July and August were obese.
Health, not weight
When talking about weight with her pediatric patients, Dr. Linnell says "I don't really talk numbers. I go over the growth chart." She tells her patients, "It doesn't mean anything about you, but it helps me track concerning patterns. The most important thing is to keep you healthy."
Dr. Linnell says that she also reminds kids that this is "not about your outside. I'm talking about your insides."
Small changes can yield big results
In encouraging children (and their families) to make lifestyle changes for better health, Dr. Linnell suggests that kids set one goal at a time. It could be walking 30 minutes a day or planning healthy snacks. "We try to focus on small wins," she said.
- Adding exercise to your child's day could include going for a 10-minute walk, putting on some music and dancing — anything kids like to do.
- Draw a rainbow and challenge your child to try to eat a different color fruit or vegetable with each meal to match the rainbow.
- Delineate between "fun" foods that are every-once-in-a-while food, such as pizza or queso, and "kind" foods that are for every day, such as fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy, and lean proteins.
- Help kids look up a recipe and prepare the food or try something different, such as cutting a cucumber to look like an alligator.
- Don't fight with kids over eating vegetables, just start putting it on their plate. Try offering one new fruit or vegetable a week. If you make it a thing, kids' natural inclination is to push back and fight it, Linnell said: "If they eat it, that's great. If they don't, that's OK."
- Realize that kids often will eat fruits and vegetables at school or preschool if their friends are eating it. If they don't eat it for you at home, that's OK.
- "So much we do in life is already stressful," says Dr. Linnell. "We don't need to fight about the green beans at dinner."
Watch out for sneaky foods
Dr. Linnell encourages families to choose more "real" food rather than processed food, but she realizes that 1 in 4 kids in Texas were considered food insecure before the pandemic. If you don't have access to fresh fruits and vegetables, frozen ones are just fine and more affordable.
- Snacks should not be a constant thing. When you do offer a snack, choose one that has a fruit or vegetable and a protein. Think apples with peanut butter, or low-fat string cheese with carrots.
- Watch out for added sugar in drinks including sodas, sports drinks, flavored waters, and juices. Even juices with no added sugar have a lot of natural sugar and don't have the benefits of the fiber found in the fruit to help control blood sugar spikes. "It's just not the healthy form of that apple," Dr. Linnell says.
- Water really is the best thing for our bodies.
And remember, parents need to model healthy eating choices and healthy activity.
ARC Healthiness is a lifestyle change program that helps you reach your health and activity goals with nutrition and wellness support, ongoing education, and personalized guidance by a team of experienced health professionals. ARC Healthiness has a program for teens. If you are interested, Dr. Linnell can answer your questions about this program.
Make an appointment with Dr. Linnell today
Dr. Linnell is accepting new patients. To make an appointment, call ARC Kyle Plum Creek at 512-295-1333 or make an appointment online.