It’s been the worst of times for our children.
Events of the last few years, including the pandemic, have burdened our nation’s youth with “unprecedented” hardships, according to several reports. Yet at the same time, there are signs of hope.
“A society must be judged by how it treats its most vulnerable — and most valuable — members: its children,” notes the Children’s Defense Fund’s report State of America’s Children 2020. “By this measure, America is falling shamefully short.
“Every aspect of children’s lives has been impacted by these shifts more quickly than data can track; even the most recent available data sets do not fully encompass how this past year has shaped our lives.”
These are some of the key health considerations.
U.S. kids get the majority of their calories from ultraprocessed foods, according to a 2020 study in JAMA that analyzed the diets of 33,795 youths ages 2 to 19. In 2018, 67 percent of the calories consumed by kids came from ultraprocessed foods, up from 61 percent in 1999.
Meanwhile, childhood obesity has been steadily rising: 14.4 million kids ages 2 to 19, or 19.3 percent of U.S. kids, are now classified as obese, putting them “at risk for poor health,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A 2018 study in Pediatrics notes that the trend is especially prominent among kids ages 2 to 5.
There is some good news on the nutrition front, though: The JAMA study found that calorie intake from sugar-sweetened beverages dropped 51 percent over the past two decades.
Parents have less control over school meals. The National School Lunch Program feeds more than 30 million students daily — 22 million of whom are low-income — making it the nation’s second-largest antihunger initiative after the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
The Life Time Foundation, which partners with schools to provide healthy meals, now serves 3,634 schools and 1.7 million students nationwide. “We are trying to help accelerate access to better ingredients, as well as scratch-cooking practices,” explains Life Time Foundation senior program manager Valeria La Rosa. “Despite all the challenges school food professionals face, I’m feeling very hopeful about the future of school meals.”
Exercise and Movement
People of all ages were moving less during the pandemic — and that includes kids. Lockdowns, school and park closures, and youth-sports cancellations curtailed much organized activity. A study in BMC Public Health found that throughout spring 2020, 82 percent of parents of preteens ages 9 to 13 said their kids were more sedentary.
“Of public-health concern is [that] these short-term changes in behavior in reaction to COVID-19 may become permanently entrenched, leading to increased risk of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease in children as they get older,” says lead author Genevieve Dunton, PhD, MPH, professor of preventive medicine and psychology at the University of Southern California.
“If the pandemic is resetting children’s trajectories for physical activity, that can be difficult to change.”
(For family-friendly exercise ideas, see “The 8-Station Family Fitness Circuit“.)
Even in the best of times, adolescence is a challenging phase, but the pandemic exacerbated kids’ inner turmoil. A 2020 meta-review of 63 studies, published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, found that young people were more likely to experience higher rates of depression and anxiety during and after the enforced isolation of the pandemic.
And, describing the results of a 2021 longitudinal study in PLOS ONE, Harvard research associate Maya L. Rosen, PhD, notes, “The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced unprecedented changes in the lives of children and adolescents. These changes brought a sudden loss of structure, routine, and sense of control.
“Numerous pandemic-related experiences reflect novel stressors for youth and families, including unpredictability and daily-routine disruptions; unexpected loss of family members, friends, and loved ones; chronic exposure to information about threats to well-being and survival in situations that were previously safe; and social isolation.”
Rosen also found that several simple strategies helped families promote better mental health during the pandemic: adopting a structured daily routine, limiting passive screen time, minimizing exposure to pandemic news reports, spending more time in nature, and getting quality sleep.