How kids eat: 5 new insights on daily habits during COVID-19

Studies reveal how family, social media and COVID-19 influence children’s diets and health

What we eat during childhood can affect the health of individuals–and populations–for years to come. As rates of childhood obesity continue to rise, five studies being presented bring new insights into the diets of children and teens during the COVID-19.

Families report substantial child weight gain during COVID-19

Researchers surveyed over 400 parents about their children’s weight and eating habits before the COVID-19 pandemic and at two points during the pandemic. About 30% of parents reported that their child had gained weight during the initial months of COVID-19, with an average increase of 9.6 pounds.

While there were no clear patterns in the types of foods families reported having at home, the surveys revealed shifting concerns and parenting behaviors surrounding children’s eating habits.

Families who reported child weight gain also reported feeling an increased, and sustained, concern about their child’s weight and efforts to monitor and restrict their child’s eating across both pandemic timepoints.

Families whose children did not gain weight also reported similar initial concerns and efforts to monitor and restrict eating, yet these did not increase as much or were more temporary and returned to pre-pandemic attitudes and practices.

To mitigate the potential long-term health consequences, researchers say public health efforts are crucial to helping families resume more healthful pre-pandemic child feeding practices and healthy lifestyle behaviors, particularly for children who have experienced weight gain during this time.

Children internalize family members’ negative comments about weight

Research from the Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy suggests that teasing or critical comments about weight from family members can lead children to apply negative weight-based stereotypes to themselves, known as weight bias internalization.

The researchers surveyed 137 parents and their 9-14 year-old children about the number of times children experienced teasing or critical comments about their weight from family members and children’s weight bias internalization.

About 30% of children were overweight or obese and 15% had moderate to high levels of weight bias internalization.

Children exposed to negative weight talk from parents or siblings on nine or more occasions over a three-month period were eight times more likely to have moderate or high levels of weight bias internalization than those exposed to negative weight talk less frequently or not at all.

Previous studies have linked weight bias internalization with self-devaluation, low self-esteem, poor body image and disordered eating behaviors.

Snacks account for much of the junk food in teens’ diets

A study by researchers at Temple University reveals that snacks account for a high proportion of the least healthy foods teens eat in a day.

n a survey of more than 6,500 U.S. adolescents age 12-19, snacks between meals accounted for two-thirds of the recommended daily limit of added sugar and about one-third of daily limits for solid fats and refined grains, on average.

These proportions were highest among teens with obesity. Snacks accounted for more total calories and a higher proportion of daily calories among those with obesity or overweight.

Teens with obesity consumed an average of 204 more calories from snacks each day compared to teens with normal weight. The findings demonstrate that snacking is a key contributor to nutrient-poor calories from added sugars in the diets of U.S. teens, according to researchers.

Young people around the world report barriers to healthy eating

What drives food choices among young people? To find out, researchers at Western Sydney University collaborated with UNICEF teams and enrolled 655 adolescents age 12-18 to participate in workshops simultaneously conducted in 18 countries across five world regions. The workshops, led by facilitators from UNICEF, were designed to elicit insights into young people’s experiences and perceptions.

Across all countries, participants identified family, social media and the internet as primary drivers of their food choices, followed by television and radio, friends, branding and advertising and celebrity endorsements.

Key barriers to healthy eating related to financial constraints; taste; and the types of food available at home, at school and in the community, with many reporting that unhealthy foods are typically easier to access. Participants suggested that young people themselves should play a role in designing solutions to encourage healthier choices.

Tracking what European children eat in a day

The daily patterns of what we eat can shed light on a population’s overall diet and health. In a study led by researchers at the Dr. von Hauner Children’s Hospital of Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich in Germany, scientists analyzed what was on the plates of 740 children between the ages of 3-8 years in five European countries.

The results show a consistent daily pattern of three meals and two snacks. Children consumed most of their dietary energy, protein and fat at lunch and dinner, while most carbohydrates were provided with snacks and breakfast.

Snacks and dinner each accounted for about one-quarter of overall calories; lunch accounted for about 30% of calories and breakfast accounted for about 18%.

Italian children consumed the lightest breakfasts and were the least likely to have a morning snack. Spanish children showed higher than average fat and protein intakes at all eating occasions.

Overall, the results suggest the diets of European children followed a traditional, stable pattern with some country-specific differences, researchers said.

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