“For some, this will be a permanent problem”

Children struggle with obesity due to the pandemic

Fat through Corona

Sat 03/12/22 | 11:36 | Of Sabine Priess

Picture: dpa / P. Steffen

Homeschooling, closed sports clubs, playgrounds where many previously slim children and young people have gained weight during the pandemic. Some even to an extreme degree. And the kilos stay. By Sabine Priess

Now that Jonah is running, he quickly becomes short of breath. The eleven-year-old is a striker in an E-youth football team in Berlin and is known for always being in the right place. Or rather he was known for it, because today Jonah does not manage to get to the right place fast enough anymore.

His stomach prevents the slender blonde boy. Jonas ate it during the Corona period. He makes him walk stiff and curved, run slower and make him the butt of his teammates ’ridicule. Jonah’s parents hope that “that belly” will just grow back together.

It is not so unlikely, says the Berlin pediatrician Jakob Maske. Unlike young people, children in particular are still growing. “But first, the pounds are there,” Maske says.

Jonah plays football and chills a lot

Jonah’s parents, who wish to remain anonymous, are academics. They are familiar with healthy nutrition and live it as an example. But during the Corona period and the shutdowns, they both had to work a lot in unnecessary jobs while their son alternated between homeschooling on the computer and leisure activities in front of the gaming console. There was rarely anyone to play with personally during the lockdown – Jonah is an only child. He likes to eat pasta, loves milk chocolate, likes to snack on salty chips and freezes very horizontally. This is where the stomach comes from, guess the parents. It does not help that the family usually eats a lot of vegetables and fruits.

Many children and young people have been like Jonas since the corona pandemic. For not only the school road, school sports and the spontaneous run around the table tennis table were canceled over long distances – the sports clubs were also closed for a longer period of time in some places. The children sat at home where they were supposed to be and moved significantly less or not at all. Of course, we still ate and nibbled.

Obesity in children, usually (before Corona) often associated with genetic predisposition or low social status [aerztezeitung.de]is now clearly visible in all levels of education.

Even before the pandemic, many obese children

Already at the beginning of 2021, the Berlin pediatrician Jakob Maske was in Berlin’s daily mirror ” [Bezahlinhalt] even reported “drastic cases of obesity”. Back then, little happened to children and young people. The barrier was tough – they also only had to stay outside for sports activities – and in some cases there was simply no longer an opportunity for the clubs to offer training. The doors to the sports fields were tightly closed. Young people who climbed over it were chased away or even reported. Playgrounds were cordoned off with fences and surrounded by warning tape, as after an accident.

When games and sports were finally possible again, the latter initially in small, permanent group units and exclusively outside, the risk of a corona infection including quarantine of their unvaccinated children was too high for many parents.

“Many children and young people have taken on a lot during this pandemic period, as many studies have shown. And of course there are also the secondary diseases,” said Maske rbb | 24 nu. His statement from the previous year was unfortunately confirmed.

How is it today, Mr Mask?

In Germany, every fifth child is considered overweight or extremely overweight, ie obese. That was before the pandemic. The deterioration of the situation due to Corona can also be seen nationally in numbers, at least for the year 2020. According to the children and youth report from DAK-Gesundheit [dak.de] Hospital admissions for children diagnosed with obesity increased 60 percent year-on-year and remained at record levels.

It’s about “extreme” weight gain

The pediatric endocrinologist Susanna Wiegand, who heads the Obesity Outpatient Clinic for Children at the Berlin Charité, told the editorial network Germany at the end of December 2021 [rnd], it is remarkable that many patients who come to her now, “have really gained a lot of weight”. She talks about school children weighing 20 to 30 kilos more, and young people with “extreme overweight” who visit her office hours. “We did not see this in this form until the pandemic with this frequency.” Whether multiple children are actually affected cannot be proven with certainty, even if she assumes it. For in Berlin, for example, the school entrance exams were missing for two years because of Corona.

It is known more precisely for Brandenburg: Data from DAK health insurance show that in 2020 there was a 34 percent increase in new cases of obesity among children of primary school age between five and nine years compared to the previous year. Detlef Reichel, head of the union for paediatricians / adolescent medicine, was very concerned about the extent to which mental and psychosomatic disorders in children and adolescents had increased in 2020 in light of the CAD data. He even assumes that the numbers will have increased as the pandemic continued.

Oscar wanted to die and found solace in food

Oscar’s sweater sits tight on the belly, even though the sleeves are too long. In fact, the ten-year-old was never overweight and liked to exercise, was in the swimming club and on BMX. He did not stand out between his slender parents and equally slender brother. But with the Corona came obesity. Oscar has visibly risen during the Corona period in the first lockdown. Because with the isolation and the new, diffuse danger, Oscar’s world collapsed, he talked about wanting to die and found solace in the food.

Oscar is feeling better now, but the pounds remain. When he has nothing to do, he still goes out into the kitchen and makes sandwiches for himself. “We have not had unhealthy things or sweets in the house for a long time,” says the mother, who also wishes to remain anonymous. Oscar can only rarely be encouraged to play sports. He is worried about not being able to keep up with the others. Oscar’s mother is also worried. She sought advice from the pediatrician, who advised behavioral therapy. A rather long-term project, because therapy places are rare and there are long waits. Now she is in doubt about how she can best handle the baby’s weight situation.

Oscar’s eating habits are almost addictive. He now secretly goes to the kiosk and buys sweets for his pocket money.

Oscars mor

“I wonder if we should do anything at all,” she says. Part of the problem is also the prevailing ideal of being slim and successful, and that fat people are stigmatized. At the same time, she is aware of an increased risk of diabetes or cardiovascular disease. “Oscar’s eating behavior is almost a kind of addictive behavior. He now secretly goes to the kiosk and buys sweets with his pocket money,” she says.

She thinks schools should better absorb the social consequences of Corona. “And I would love to see more sports activities for kids who are not athletic – they need it the most,” she says.

The pediatrician Maske says that in certain circumstances it may make sense for obese children to play sports with other obese children. According to the mask, there are too few offers for that. In his view, such measures should be promoted as soon as possible by the federal and state governments. It is precisely these children who really need to be encouraged to play sports. As a rule, Maske continues, it’s not about them having to lose weight. “We advise most parents to make sure that their overweight children do not continue to gain weight.” It is usually enough for them to grow out of being overweight. But Maske also sees, like Oscar’s mother, that the approach to the children should be discussed carefully. The focus must be on the child’s health.

Many came out of lockdown overweight or not at all

Although regular club sports for children and young people have been possible again for a long time, the situation is far from as carefree and low-threshold as it was before Corona. If you want to be in the swimming pool with children who need exercise or in a trampoline hall, you must have tried in advance to find a free time online. It does not work spontaneously. In addition, there is still – where the number of infections is currently rising again – the risk of infection – or even another infection with the corona virus.

Thanks to the commitment of his coach, football player Jonah was also able to play test matches outdoors in the winter – and now – in wind, rain and hail – the league is up and running again. But indoor tournaments or switching to the hall during training when the weather is too bad are still not possible. And somehow, says the father, Jonah has lost the natural ability to move fast.

Of course, it is not only young footballers who have problems. The president of the Berlin Karate Association, Kathrin Brachwitz, also reported on many children who had stopped or had come out of the lockdown with delays in motor development or obesity.

We advise most parents to ensure that their overweight children do not continue to gain weight.

Jakob Maske, pediatrician from Berlin

Returning to normal will take a long time

Meanwhile, a survey among children and adolescents shows the COPSY survey [uke.de] from the late summer of 2021, many children have been affected by the pandemic a little better. Most kids play more sports again and are less online, it sounded. The mental stress on the children has decreased a bit, but is still at a high level, it is said.

Thomas Fischbach, President of the Professional Association of Pediatricians in September 2021 in the medical journal [aerzteblatt.de]believes: “These effects will keep us busy for a long time to come. It will be a long time before we can return to normalcy.”

Pediatrician Jakob Maske also assumes that the extra kilos will keep many of the affected children and young people employed for several years to decades. “For some of the kids, this is also becoming a permanent problem,” he concludes.

There is a huge burden on healthcare

After all, being overweight is only one side of the coin. According to the CAD study, the number of young patients who are severely underweight increased by 35 percent by 2020. Eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia increased by almost ten percent. There were also significant increases in diabetes, asthma and infections.

Kaweh Niroomand, spokesman for Berlin’s professional clubs, put the horse ahead of the horse in May 2021 at a hearing in the House of Representatives’ sports committee. “We’re going to have a huge burden on health care costs,” he said.

What you need to know now

Contributed by Sabine Priess

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