Lori Dagg was reluctant go grocery shopping for most of last year because of pandemic restrictions, and ordering groceries online often took too long to book. So instead, she often relied on takeout and Skip the Dishes, a meal-delivery service, for her and her nine-year-old son.
“I did rely a lot, too much, on ordering in,” said Ms. Dagg, a public servant who lives in Vancouver.
By December, she began to worry about the health implications – and the fact the delivery drivers now knew her by name.
She decided to try to correct course, doing more grocery shopping and cooking at home, involving her son in meal planning and even signing them up for an online health and nutrition course.
One thing she did not do was talk to her son about his weight.
“He has anxiety, and I don’t want to feed in to that,” Ms. Dagg said.
Concern about weight gain, including among children, has been a consistent theme throughout the pandemic. In March, the journal Obesity warned that the combination of school closings, less physical activity and families spending more time at home surrounded by comfort foods would increase the risk factors for weight gain. Since then, studies have shown that some children are indeed eating more and moving less. But pediatricians and dietitians say parents need not worry, and nor should they add to the stresses and difficulties of pandemic life by adopting weight-management programs. There are simple, practical things parents can do to help their families make healthier choices, but talking to kids about their weight is not one of them.
“Parents are used to that model of, if there’s a problem you need to talk about it and work through it,” said Geoff Ball, director of the Pediatric Centre for Weight and Health at Stollery Children’s Hospital in Edmonton. “Is it critical to have that conversation? I’d say it’s more important to have a healthy environment and love your kids unconditionally.”
As well-intentioned as that conversation might be, it is not likely to lead to positive change.
“It just makes them feel bad,” said Tom Warshawski, a pediatrician and chair of the Childhood Obesity Foundation, an organization that promotes healthy eating and active lifestyles for children.
It can even have more harmful consequences. A study published in the journal Eating and Weight Disorders that surveyed 501 women between the ages of 25 and 35 found that those who said their parents made weight-related comments to them as children were more likely to be dissatisfied with their bodies and more prone to higher body-mass index. The more parents talked to kids about weight, the worse study participants felt about their bodies in adulthood, according to the 2016 study.
Families who are putting on weight during the pandemic shouldn’t be surprised or alarmed, Dr. Ball said.
“It’s a logical consequence of the environmental changes that we’re all experiencing right now,” he said. “The challenge is that, during the pandemic, the broader environment has changed. We can’t have play dates, we can’t participate in extracurricular sports.”
A study published in April in the journal Obesity that looked at 41 children with obesity living under lockdown in Italy found that they were eating one extra meal a day and eating significantly more junk food and red meat compared with the year before.
At the same time, a majority of children and youth have not been getting the recommended levels of physical activity.
Only 39 per cent of children and youth in Canada met the national guidelines of 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity a day, according to the 2020 ParticipACTION Report Card On Physical Activity for Children and Youth, an annual study released by the non-profit organization.
Weight gain and less physical activity during the pandemic are not limited to children and youth. A survey in November of more than 1,500 Canadians released by Leger and the Association for Canadian Studies found that nearly one-third of respondents said they have put on weight and exercised less since March.
Parents need not stress if they and their children are eating more and moving less during the pandemic, said Nicole Spencer, a Vancouver-based dietitian who works with children and youth.
“It’s all about, what do we need for coping?” she said.
Parents also shouldn’t rid the pantry of cookies and other treats in an effort to help the family eat better, she said. “If we completely cut sweets and rich foods out of our kids’ diets, they don’t learn to moderate them.”
There are small, practical steps parents can take to help children make healthier choices. One key is to put healthy foods front and centre, whether in the fridge, pantry or around the house, Dr. Ball said.
“A good, practical example is a fruit bowl,” he said.
Also, avoid stigmatizing any one member of the household by making healthier eating a family endeavour, Dr. Ball said.
A family approach could mean involving children in meal planning and grocery shopping, as well as eating meals together.
“We know that there’s a strong link between family meals and family mental-health optimization,” Dr. Warshawski said.
Small steps may appeal to some families, but most shouldn’t add to the stress of pandemic life by worrying about weight gain, said Grace Wong, a Calgary-based dietitian.
“This really is a bad time to get so laser focused on youth’s bodies. They have way more things to worry about,” she said.
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