Children consumed more vegetables but also more sweets during the pandemic, study reveals

According to the study “The impact of the covid-19 pandemic on the daily routine and behaviors of school-age children in Europe: results from 17 Member States”

One in five parents surveyed in a European study reported that their children started consuming more savory and sweet snacks during the pandemic, despite eating more fruit (10,3%), vegetables (7%) and dairy products ( 10,8%).

The World Health Organization (WHO) study “The impact of the covid-19 pandemic on the daily routine and behaviors of school-age children in Europe: results from 17 Member States”, presented today in Lisbon, brought together data from almost 55 thousand families and children, the majority being boys (51,8%) and eight-year-olds (54,8%).

Coordinated by the Ricardo Jorge National Health Institute (INSA), the study aimed to understand and understand the impact of the covid-19 pandemic (2020-2022) based on parents' perception in relation to six dimensions: Food consumption, family behaviors, physical activity and sedentary behaviors, characteristics of the family environment, child nutritional status, mental health and well-being.

The study reveals that food consumption remained unchanged for 70 to 80% of children, but parents' perception of their children's nutritional status doubled for being overweight (rising from 8% before the pandemic to 16% during the pandemic period) and the percentage of children perceived as having normal weight dropped from 82 to 73%.

Speaking to the Lusa agency, Ana Rito, INSA researcher who led the study, pointed out as a positive aspect of the pandemic that there was an improvement in several family behaviors, such as “sharing family meals” (29%), “preparing meals in together with the child” (30%) and “buying food in large quantities” (28%), instead of going to the supermarket.

“Although we never associate positive aspects with the pandemic, there were, in fact, one or two aspects that we have to highlight and one of them was the greater time spent with the family (…) which allowed the child to be closer to the mother and father in time to cook”, recovering something that has been lost in the current lifestyle, he commented.

There were, however, “many other” aspects that “were not such positive changes at the time”, said Ana Rito, exemplifying that, if on the one hand there was an increase in the consumption of fruits and vegetables in Portugal, very similar to the European average, and a decrease in the consumption of soft drinks and sugary products, it was found, on the other hand, that “children consumed much more sugary products of other types, such as cookies, cakes”, and savory snacks”.

Sedentary activities also increased “on a large scale”, with a decrease in the time children spent actively playing on weekdays (28%) and weekends (23%) and 36% increased the time spent playing watching television, playing video games or on social media.

More than a third of school-age children (34%), between six and ten years old, increased the time spent learning at home, including “teleschool”, by more than three hours a day, with parents also reporting a increase in the number of hours children sleep on weekdays (15%) and weekends (17%).

“The significant increase in these sedentary activities, combined with there being no opportunity for children to practice physical activity [due to confinement] (…) was something that will certainly have had an impact on the nutritional status and health of these children”, as well as “the greater consumption of sugary products and uninteresting food products”, highlighted Ana Rito.

Noting that the pandemic was not “the only cause” for the slight increase in overweight and obesity that occurred in Portugal, the researcher stated that it was “a very difficult period for these children and for everyone” also in matters related to well-being, mental health and psychosocial status.