4 min read

Losing The War On Childhood Obesity

With schools closed and kids stuck at home, childhood obesity is expected to surge, worsening a problem of epidemic proportions.

By the numbers

  • Worldwide, 340M+ children and adolescents are overweight or obese.
  • In the US, one in three children is overweight or obese.
  • Childhood obesity costs US schools $14B annually in direct health expenses.

On one hand, a miracle of sorts, children have shown a resilience to COVID-19. They’re not immune. But fortunately, they don’t face a significant risk of death.

On the other hand, contracting the virus is only one risk of this crisis. In the long run, physical health, food security, and the general well-being of children will suffer.

The big picture: Coronavirus aside, for more than 20 years, we’ve failed to curb childhood obesity. Like other aspects of health, fitness, and well-being, we’re actually moving further away from a solution.

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Genetics, inactivity, and the ubiquity of fast food each play a role. But in reality, the list of variables is seemingly endless.

From the use of sugar as a reward and parental eating habits to neighborhood design, economic disparities, and governmental policies at every level, childhood obesity is complicated.

“Addressing childhood obesity is absolutely like playing whack-a-mole. There are so many pieces to this, so many factors that are cultural, environmental, political and systemic… But no one has yet come up with the best strategy to make that happen.” —  Erica Kenney, assistant professor at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

Far from a foolproof plan, the most promising initiatives tend to overlap in two areas.

  • First, combating the political influence and manipulative marketing practices of “Big Food” is a priority. This effort includes taxing processed foods, banning soda, and eliminating junk food advertising aimed at young children.
  • Then, the focus shifts to schools. Improving the nutritional value of school lunches and reducing unhealthy options are essential. And the same goes for mandating PE class and recess, which have been reduced or eliminated in some schools.

Still, there’s a difference between strategy and execution. To date, efforts (and results) have been inconsistent at best.

Making matters worseexperts say the COVID-19 pandemic will exacerbate childhood obesity.

What’s happening: School closures could result in double the amount of out-of-school time this year. In all likelihood, that time will be spent indoors, in front of a screen, with access to unhealthy foods.

  • In stocking up, families are purchasing ultra-processed, calorie-dense comfort foods.
  • Social distancing is reducing opportunities for exercise and increasing inactivity.
  • Children will spend 2.5 to 3.5 times more hours in front of screens while isolating.

Why it matters: According to Andrew Rundle, associate professor of epidemiology at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, children primarily experience unhealthy weight gain during the summer months. Typically, this excess weight is maintained during the school year and accrues summer to summer.

In the near term, more time at home could translate to even more weight gained. And in the long run, being overweight or obese at a young age increases health risks into adolescence and adulthood.

Shockingly, COVID-19 aside, there is no concerted effort to combat childhood obesity.

In political circles, policymakers are still debating the efficacy and impact of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative. Others are busy criticizing President Trump for making school lunches unhealthy again.

In terms of legislation, we’re not sure if soda taxes work, but we know Big Soda isn’t taking any chances — spending millions to lobby against them. Another blip, food companies say they’ll halt advertising to kids. Inevitably, most break their own pledge.

Likewise, startup and investment activity is limited.

  • Revolution Foods raised $138M to deliver healthy meals to schools and families.
  • Kurbo Health, a mobile weight loss app for kids, raised $6M before being acquired by WW — a move criticized by practically everyone.
  • Focusing on physical activity, GoNoodle raised $11M to create a mindful movement platform for kids.

Related: NEOU recently launched content for kids, Sworkit offers a no-cost youth initiative, and fitness YouTuber Joe Wicks has become the “world’s PE teacher”, streaming workouts during social distancing.

The bottom line: From fitness to wellness and supplements to meditation apps, we’re spending trillions on well-being but we’re growing increasingly unwell. Instead of funding the next “Peloton of X”, it’s time to start, fund, and celebrate science-based concepts delivering actual health outcomes.

Attention innovators: that world-changing problem you’re itching to solve… here it is.

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