Portrait of smiling little girl with friends at picnic table outdoors enjoying Birthday party in Summer

Portrait of smiling little girl with friends at picnic table outdoors enjoying Birthday party in Summer (SeventyFour)

Get outside. Eat healthy food. Keep moving.

That all sounds easy enough, right? Such pithy directives for a healthy lifestyle are now so common that they’ve become a kind of white noise in our daily lives. But as kids return to school this fall, it’s the perfect time for families to recommit to their physical and mental health.

There’s some urgency in my recommendation. Many families are still grappling with the secondary physical and psychosocial health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic — including an alarming surge in obesity and Type 2 diabetes among children.

As a pediatric endocrinologist at Chicago’s Lurie Children’s Hospital, I’ve seen firsthand an explosion of child obesity among our patients during the pandemic. My colleagues and I have also observed an alarming increase in children with new onset Type 2 diabetes, which is directly related to the widespread weight gain among our patients.

In a recent study published in the Journal of Diabetes, my colleagues found that diagnoses of Type 2 diabetes at Lurie increased nearly 300% from the pre-pandemic annual mean. Black and Hispanic children represented the majority of diagnoses, which likely reflects the persistent societal inequities in access to healthy food and other resources. These findings are deeply unsettling. Fifteen years ago, when I began my career in pediatric endocrinology, we rarely diagnosed Type 2 diabetes in children. As child obesity has become more prevalent, it’s become much more common.

What’s most scary is the rapid progression for children, which can lead to organ disease such as kidney failure and heart disease and will affect the mortality rate.

Put in simple terms, prevention really is a matter of life and death.

It’s not surprising that kids gained weight during the pandemic. Many of us did. We were at home more and glued to our screens. Many working families had their children at home, but with less access to healthy food and perhaps more reliance on processed foods.

National research has shown that lower-income Black and Latino families were disproportionately affected by food insecurity during the pandemic. It shouldn’t surprise anyone to hear there are also inequities in access to opportunities for safe outdoor recreation. I’ve heard from many parents of my patients at Lurie that they didn’t feel safe allowing their child to play at the neighborhood park or walk to school. That’s unfair and unjust.

At Nourishing Hope, formerly known as Lakeview Pantry, where I serve as a board member, we saw a historic rise early in the pandemic in the number of people turning to us for food assistance. My children and I volunteered at Nourishing Hope’s massive food distribution at Wrigley Field, which fed tens of thousands of people who needed help. It was surreal and inspiring and heartbreaking, all at once.

Though we are no longer in the peak of the pandemic, the need for food assistance remains extremely high. Grocery prices increased 13.5% in the 12-month period ending in August, according to the latest inflation report, the largest 12-month increase since 1979.

Last month alone, Nourishing Hope, which also provides free mental health counseling, served more than 1,700 families with children — more than double the number in August 2021.

The good news is that kids are back in school, which means more access to healthy food and more physical activity and socializing with their friends. We can all do something to help prevent child obesity and metabolic disease. If you’re someone with means to help, you could donate or volunteer at one of the many Chicago nonprofits that provide food or youth activities for lower-income families.

Parents, there’s no one right way to keep your children healthy and active. What works for one family may not for another. Involving your children in helping to prepare dinner is a great way to teach them about making healthy meals. Insisting on them putting down the iPad and joining you for a walk is a battle worth fighting. Each day is a blank slate. Keep trying.

There’s much to be grateful for. We have an opportunity to live our fullest, healthiest life — and help others do the same.

Let’s make the most of it.

Dr. Jami Josefson is a pediatric endocrinologist at Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago and also is on the faculty at Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine. In addition to her clinical work, she researches the origins of childhood obesity and studies pregnancy metabolism and outcomes in children.

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