The Pandemic’s Impact on Nutritional Health

New normal lifestyle Kid sitting on sofa eating potato chips while watching TV

On two separate occasions in the last few days I have had conversations with some parents about their struggles with her kids’ eating habits during the pandemic. I witnessed my own grandchildren seeming to be insatiable, engaging in constant snacking. One of my neighbors commented on how hard it was to keep her kids from begging for food throughout the day, including when they were in virtual classes and snacking was prohibited. The kids had figured out ways to hide the fact that they were munching on something during class time. These parents talked about how the kids said they felt hungry all the time and wanted what we would call comfort food-high in sugar and carbs.

I was curious to see if this was some kind of a trend among children that could be related to the Covid19 pandemic. I found a few interesting articles that affirmed what these parents were observing.

In an article from Equity Health Journal, here are a few interesting quotes:

“… the lockdown led, in a substantial part of the population, to unhealthy nutritional and lifestyle behaviors: decreased physical activity (53%), increased sedentary time (63%), increased snacking (21%), decreased consumption of fresh foods (27%), increased consumption of sweets (22%), eating in response to boredom (18%) or anxiety (10%) with a weight gain of 1.8kg on average for 35% of the respondents.

“The fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic goes far beyond that of a viral infection and threatens to undo decades of hard-won progress in pediatrics. While it is important to understand the direct effects of the virus which affects a small proportion of children, we should not forget about all the collateral damages that this pandemic could have on many children. The impact on nutrition and lifestyle is one of the submerged parts of this iceberg with potential intergenerational consequences. Nutrition and lifestyle should be a core component of a response plan to such a pandemic particularly for marginalized groups. The true burden of the pandemic in children is yet to be unveiled.”

Bag of potato crisps snacks chips junk food

We know that the pandemic has been the source of a great deal of stress for children and adults alike. It is that stress that creates allostatic load, the burden of chronic, toxic stress over time. Stressed-out parents are trying to parent their stressed-out children. Each person’s individual stress is impacting the overall stress of the family unit. Just as the pandemic has been an out-of-control viral epidemic, stress in its own way has also been an out-of-control and viral epidemic with significant consequences. And it is impacting eating habits.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, “Stress doesn’t only influence your eating habits. Studies show it can affect your metabolism, too.” In one recent study, participants who reported one or more stressors during the previous 24 hours…burned 104 fewer calories than non-stressed women in the seven hours after eating a high-fat meal.

Researchers say experiencing one or more stressful events the day before eating just one high-fat meal (the kind we’re most likely to indulge in when frazzled)can slow the body’s metabolism so much that women could potentially see an 11-pound weight gain over the course of a year.  

I think we can believe with confidence that if this is true for women, it is true for men and children as well.

The article from the International Journal for Equity and Health also stated the following as a kind of warning:

“The poor diet quality and sedentary lifestyle potentially acquired during the pandemic may not be easily reversible for children and their parents. Infancy and early childhood are a key period for learning healthy eating habits that accompany us throughout our lives and into adulthood. Furthermore, inadequate nutrition at an early age could have life-long repercussions. Nutrition is intrinsically linked to the immune system and to disease susceptibility.”

What can parents do to mitigate some of the negative nutritional consequences of the pandemic? Here are a few suggestions:

heart shape by various vegetables and fruits
  1. Be highly mindful that your family is experiencing an overload of stress. Do whatever you can to reduce the stress in your life, such as creating and maintaining a self-care protocol that provides opportunities to just chill out. Help your children also have their own self-care plans. It is important to have these in writing to make the specifics very clear.
  2. Teach your children about the negative impact of toxic stress. Help them understand how the ways they are thinking can have an actual physiological impact on their immune system. Give them ideas for new ways of thinking about themselves and life that are more positive and help reduce some of their stress.
  3. Remember that you are a powerful model to your children. This includes not only talking about healthy nutritional patterns but demonstrating that you too are keeping them. This includes having snacks that are low on sugar and carbs and high on protein and fiber.
  4. Invite your kids to make shopping lists that reflect high-quality nutritional snacks.
  5. Create a chart that indicates the specific times for snacks. Reward children with praise and affirmations or something tangible when they adhere to the agreed-upon limits to snacking.

Congratulate yourself for all that you are working on to maintain your physical and emotional health and that of your children and other family members throughout these trying times.

Invitation for Reflection

  1. What changes have you noted in the eating habits of your children during this pandemic?
  2. What changes have you observed in yourself?
  3. To what extent do you think these changes might be connected to the stresses associated with the pandemic?
  4. What are some steps you can take to promote healthier eating patterns even as you acknowledge how understandable it is to have frequent cravings for comfort foods?

Diane Wagenhals, Director, Lakeside Global Institute