Dr Curtis Pryce, Paediatrician

Jamaica Observer: KINGSTON, JA – TWO health professionals have confirmed that since the pandemic they have noticed an increase in children with obesity and complications related to obesity.

Consultant paediatrician Dr Curtis Pryce told the Jamaica Observer that anecdotally, his practice has seen an increase in children with obesity and associated illnesses.

“Since the pandemic, anecdotal reviews of the children I see on a daily basis indicate an increase in obesity. Young children are coming in with type II diabetes and hypertension related to their inactivity, eating a lot of empty carbs and just putting on a lot of weight. The children are just piling on the weight. I might have seen a child last year and when they return this year I wonder who is this? They are putting on a lot of weight and having complications — musculoskeletal issues and the endocrine issues — such as diabetes and other adult issues you don’t normally see in children affecting them because of the inactivity and excessive weight gain,” he said.

Dr Pryce added that a number of factors might be at play where the increased weight gain in children is concerned.

“School is a big thing for children, but with the pandemic and being home we know the challenges there. However, activities generally from children being at school and being spontaneous with playing and interacting even besides the structured school programmes help. Now, you have a lot of children sitting at home on gadgets. Yes these are used for school, but when this happens and parents have to go to work or have other children to pay attention to, plus themselves, monitoring screen time becomes difficult. What you find is sometimes parents just give the children tablets to occupy their time and they’re on the tablet for hours — eight, nine, 10, 12 hours and over. A lot of parents will even tell you they wake at midnight and the child is on the tablet. The gadget use and being inactive contributes,” Dr Pryce said.

The consultant paediatrician added that he has observed fear from parents in allowing their children to go outside and play because of their own beliefs about COVID-19. He said this fear has resulted in stress and sometimes depression in children.

“Children come and are upset that they are locked inside. COVID is not just circulating in the air as people think. Get in your yards and reduce screen time. Ask your children to plan activity sessions and get the entire family involved. Many come in with signs of depression —very angry and upset. We underestimate it at times, but children tell me they are cursing — things they never usually did — or they lock themselves in their room and hide under their sheets. Some have lost interest in school or even moving around,” Dr Pryce said.

Dr Pryce, however, maintains that to really see a turn there has to be a reduction in screen time, monitoring of diet and also sleep patterns in children.

“Children are natural busybodies who move around. It’s not natural to sit in front of gadgets or tablets for hours. Reducing screen time is critical. International recommendations state that children under two years should not be doing screen time and those over should really not be doing more than two hours for the entire day. We understand the situation but we have to break,” he said.

Dr Pryce added: “The diet is another issue. Children are bored, children are depressed and so they eat around the clock. Parents allow them to eat as they are busy and they don’t want the children to get fussed up so they get empty calories, eat through the day and pile on the weight. Sleep is another issue. Children are not sleeping or getting their eight, nine hours of rest depending on their age and not going to bed on time is a high risk factor for obesity. The lack of rest affects hormones responsible for weight homoeostasis and it puts them at risk for weight gain.”

Nutritionist Shanique Rose also said there is an increase in childhood obesity levels since the pandemic and explained that the weight gain being observed in children is believed to be associated with poor nutrients intake and limited to no physical activities.

Rose, however, pointed out that parents have lost their jobs and as such they are unable to offer nutritionally balanced meals to their children and in other instances, those who depended on PATH lunches are no longer receiving it or receipt is infrequent.

The nutritionist further stated that when the students were in schools regularly they would at least be afforded play time plus physical education, however, the pandemic has for most part rendered this non-existent.

She said: “We have to encourage parents and caregivers to get involved and along with their children do things around the house such as gardening, sweeping the yard, cleaning the car, other chores and walking where possible and safe. As it relates to improving nutrition in the pandemic several things can be done: Keeping the food-based dietary guidelines for Jamaica in mind, individuals can utilise the multi-mix principle. The multimix principle focuses on using four of the six food groups — staples, food from animals, legumes and nuts, food from animals.”

“When using the multi-mix principle one can do either double mix or two mix. This is where two of the four group are utilised, for example, banana porridge. They can also do triple or three mix where three of the food groups are utilised. For example, rice and peas and chicken or chicken neck mixed with red peas and rice. They may also choose to do quadri or four where all four of the foundation groups are mixed together. For example, rice and peas and chicken with vegetables,” the nutritionist continued.

Rose said it is important that effort is made to decrease the amounts of fried foods or high fat food consumption, and use other preparation methods such as stewing, baking and roasting.

The nutritionist further encouraged families to enjoy in-season fruits as snacks, utilise locally grown products, start backyard gardens, practise portion control and make meal preparation and meal time a family activity.

“The in-season fruits can be used to make juices as well, or frozen and utilised as sorbets for the kids. The fruits contain natural sugars and are packed with vitamins and minerals that can be used to strengthen the immune system. The backyard gardens can assist families with providing their own vegetables, while getting the family involved in meal preparation and meal time can be therapeutic. Many people are depressed and tend to overeat. Eating with the family members not only encourages especially the children to eat, but they will eat the healthier things on the plate such as the vegetables,” Rose said.