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Coronavirus pandemic leads some kids to struggle with weight

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Coronavirus pandemic leads some kids to struggle with weight
Shari Rudavsky
 
| Indianapolis Star

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After losing weight, Criso Sanchez felt good.

He was watching what he ate, had stayed active, and had shed the double chin that his mother Maria uses as a barometer for how heavy he is. 

Then the pandemic hit. Stuck at home, the 18-year-old Sanchez started putting back on some of the weight he lost.

“There’s nothing to do, you’re like, I’m just going to eat,” he said. “You just eat, you sleep, you eat a little bit more, you sit there and watch TV. It put everything on pause.”

Pediatricians have noticed a disturbing trend: For many children, who already struggled with their weight before coronavirus, the pandemic has led them to backslide. 

It’s a common theme among adults as well, starting with the “quarantine 15” with which many of us emerged from the spring’s lockdown.

“Our patients who have lost significant amounts of weight are starting to regain weight,” said Melinda Jones, a dietitian at Ascension St. Vincent. “I’m seeing a surge in regain for a lot of our clients.” 

Just as disruptions in routine may have an effect on adults’ weight gain, upending our lifestyles has affected children as well.

A recent article in the Journal of Pediatric Nursing discusses what happens when “two pandemics collide,” referring to childhood obesity and the coronavirus and concludes that health care providers who treat children need to keep this in mind.

At Riley Hospital for Children’s Weight Management Program, the link between the coronavirus and childhood weight gain is something the experts see every day in the patients they treat. Many factors contribute, they say.

‘Mood is taking a toll’

Extracurriculars have been canceled. Schools have gone online as has social life for many children. The potential for snacking has increased as everyone has easy access to the kitchen all day long.

“It’s hard for everybody,” said Dr. Sara Naramore, a pediatric gastroenterologist at Riley Hospital for Children, who works with the weight management program, a multi-disciplinary approach to helping youth develop a healthy weight. “It’s wearing on everyone’s mental health…. I know it’s harder for a lot of us to find that motivation.”

Just like their parents, children find the pandemic stressful, said Elaine Gilbert, a pediatric psychologist with the program. Boredom may lead them to eat more or they may choose less healthy options to soothe themselves if they feel bad.

“Mood is taking a toll,” Gilbert said. 

For some children, summer months have a similar impact, St. Vincent’s Jones said. School’s out, they have increased screen time and decreased physical activity. Some kids are home alone during the day and instead of eating balanced meals may just be snacking.

Summer may also mean a loss of access to food for families that have food insecurity, she said. Many school districts around the state have tried to fill the void when they shutter to in-person learning by providing food to those who need it.

For many children putting on a few pounds may not have much of an impact on their long-term health. But those who fall into the obese category may go on to have severe health conditions, such as Type II diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and sleep apnea, Naramore said.

“The sooner we can address unhealthy behaviors, the greater the likelihood we can prevent those complications or hopefully we can slow down the rate of other disease that are progressing,” she said.

Riley’s Weight Management Program meets with families every two to three months to help the youth it treats stay focused on their goals. The two-year-old program addresses both the physical and psychological challenges obese and weight loss can pose. It’s so popular there’s a wait list.

Learning how to balance 

While Litzy Galvan-Castillo’s family did not want for food during the spring lockdown, the Logansport teen did experience how hard it can be to eat healthy. With both of her parents working late in essential jobs, it fell to Galvan-Castillo, the oldest of five siblings, to make dinner every night.

The family would get the school lunches and then Galvin-Castillo would try to find a dinner she could cook that all five kids would eat. Much of the time they wound up dining on grilled sandwiches, ramen with vegetables or boiled eggs.

“It was really hard emotionally to deal with the pandemic,” she said, “so I tried the best I could do, to make a fun food.”

Meanwhile, Galvin-Castillo suffered from gastritis. If she made spaghetti for the younger kids, she would eat something else to avoid the acidic tomato sauce. Her doctor noticed some of her bloodwork was off, heard about her symptoms and recommended she try the Riley program. Her first appointment was a few months ago.

The doctors there have helped Galvin-Castillo, 18, find ways to cope with stress and find healthy foods to eat that won’t set off her gastritis.  While she’s not obese, she would like to take off a few extra pounds to help her feel better.

Now, the high school senior is cooking from some new recipes that are healthier or and she tries to find time to exercise. Although she works part-time in addition to attending school full-time and helping out with her siblings, she strives to do meal prep before the week begins so she doesn’t wind up grabbing a McDonald’s burger.

Still, she said, this can also prove challenging.

“It’s better but it’s really stressful, just trying to deal with pandemic and going to school and going to work,” she said. “I would rather study and do homework than pay attention to what I’m eating or exercise.”

Not falling back into old habits

About two years ago, Criso’s doctor started expressing concern that he might be developing fatty liver disease and diabetes. At his heaviest, Criso, who is 5-feet 6-inches tall, weighed just under 210 pounds.

Knowing both his parents have diabetes, Criso with encouragement from the Riley program resolved to improve his own eating and exercise habits.

“I was like, I don’t want these problems, I might as well just listen,” he said.

The effort paid off. Not only did he avoid having to go on any medications before the pandemic, he dropped about 20 pounds. And although he gained weight in the spring, he did not gain back all he lost. He now weighs about 180 on a 5-foot 10-inch frame.

After gaining weight in the spring, Criso has resolved once more to be more disciplined about his eating habits. Maria tries to help, watching what he eats and keeping an eye on the dirty dishes he puts in the sink.

“I really did just eat 30 minutes ago, should I eat again?” he will ask himself, adding, “I’m not going to fall back into what I was before.”         

Contact IndyStar reporter Shari Rudavsky at shari.rudavsky@indystar.com. Follow her on Facebook and on Twitter: @srudavsky.



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