Pandemic: study links lack of sleep to high childhood obesity

A study carried out by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, in the United States (USA), showed that 15.4% of children seen at 29 clinics linked to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, during the period of the covid-19 pandemic, were obese. In 2019, the percentage was 13.7%.

The increase occurred in all age groups, ranging from 1% in adolescents aged 13 to 17 years to 2.6% in children aged 5 to 9 years. The body mass index (BMI) of 169,179 children and adolescents treated from June to December 2019 was measured and compared to that of 145,081 patients consulted in the same period in 2020.

Another study, coordinated by the Pennington Biomedial Research Center, also in the USA, showed that, for each additional hour of sleep in children aged 3 to 5 years, there was a 0.48 reduction in BMI. In addition to excessive consumption of high-calorie foods and sedentary lifestyle, sleep duration is a risk factor for childhood obesity. Based on these data, the Instituto do Sono warns Brazilians, since the confinement and suspension of classroom classes due to the pandemic in the country have aggravated childhood obesity.

Between walls: children in the pandemic - Caminhos da Reportagem.

During the pandemic, children traded school and outdoor activities for mobile games and remote learning – TV Brazil

According to physician Gustavo Moreira, a researcher at the Instituto do Sono, the increase in obesity among children who sleep less is the result of a combination of factors. “Theoretically, if you’re awake, you’re expending more energy, but in reality, the more time people spend awake, they’re in front of a big or small screen, low-energy activities, on social media, video game, streaming, studying. People are exercising less and have a greater caloric offer among foods,” said Moreira.

Another factor is that, if the individual is sleeping less, in the case of children and adolescents, the body understands that it is little and that the person is in a situation of stress. “We have two hormones that control our appetite: lepitin, which is the satiety hormone, and ghrelin, which is the hunger hormone. When I sleep less, I produce less lepitin and more ghrelin, that is, my appetite increases, and the tendency is to eat more without any opportunity to spend”, explained the doctor.

Moreira recalled that the pandemic contributed to the growth of obesity because it changed the routine of children who, in order to have a healthy life, need a balanced diet, exercise and energy expenditure. However, to avoid the contamination by the coronavirus, the children were forced to exchange outdoor activities for mobile games and school classes for remote learning.

“When they spend a lot of time in front of the screens, children eat several times a day, especially cookies, snacks and sweets. And the large exposure to screens leads the little ones to sleep later and wake up early”, said the doctor.

Expert recommendations for preventing childhood obesity include maintaining a regular diet, with schedules for all family meals; the preference for natural foods over industrialized ones, such as canned and packaged foods; and observation of the food pyramid, made up of eight groups of essential health foods (carbohydrates, vegetables, fruits, milk and dairy products, meat and eggs, pulses and oilseeds, oils and fats, and sugars and sweets).

It is also necessary for parents to set an example, as adults who follow a balanced diet influence their children to eat healthily; establishing a routine for the child, with well-defined times to sleep, wake up, play and study; reduce screen time and increase outdoor activities, taking children to play outdoors.

adult sleep

The health crisis also affected the quality of sleep in adults. According to a survey by the Instituto do Sono, among the 1,600 participants in the survey, 75% attributed the worsening of sleep to increased worries; 64% stay longer in front of computer, television and cell phone screens; and 54% to staying at home for a longer period of time.

When addressing the quality of sleep, the study reveals that 67% of participants had more difficulty sleeping; 61.6% went to sleep later; and 59% woke up more often during the night.