- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Researchers have found that obesity rates among children increased substantially in the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Obesity rates among children in a large pediatric primary care network increased from 13.7% to 15.4% within a year, researchers concluded in a pre-published study posted this month in the journal Pediatrics.

“Efforts to reduce COVID-19 transmission have likely contributed to worsening pediatric obesity. Families with children have faced the difficulties of managing virtual schooling, limited physical activity, and increased reliance on more heavily-processed and calorie dense foods,” wrote the researchers, who hail from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and the University of Pennsylvania.

Researchers analyzed more than 500,000 visits to the CHOP network, which includes 29 clinics in the metropolitan region. They measured the body mass index (BMI) each month for patients aged 2 through 17 years old from January 2019 to December 2020. Patients who had a BMI equal to or higher than the 95th percentile were categorized as obese.

Obesity rates climbed for all age groups: Patients aged 13 to 17 years old saw a 1% increase, while those aged 5 to 9 years saw a 2.6% increase.

“It confirms what we had feared, that obesity would increase during the pandemic,” said Dr. Sandra Hassink, director of the American Academy of Pediatrics Institute for Healthy Childhood Weight who was not involved in the study.

“I think to see this in a year is significant,” Dr. Hassink said. “We, meaning the whole community, who are trying to treat obesity, prevent obesity have been looking at rates over the years to decrease them. This is clearly not the direction we want to see everything going.”

In addition to age, the researchers analyzed obesity rates by race, insurance and neighborhood median household income. The average age of study participants was 9.2 years old. About 49% of the participants were female, 21% were non-Hispanic Black and 30% were publicly insured.

The increase in obesity was “more pronounced” in patients 5 to 9 years old and for those who were Hispanic/Latino, non-Hispanic Black, publicly insured or lower income, the study says.

Almost 25% of Hispanic/Latino, non-Hispanic Black, publicly insured and lowest income patients during the pandemic were obese compared to 11.3% of non-Hispanic white patients, 12% of non-publicly insured patients and 9.1% patients in the highest income brackets.

Disparities that already existed seemed to have worsened, the researchers noted, adding that racial differences in obesity increased from a 10%-11% difference to a 13%-14% difference after the pandemic began.

The insurance disparity increased from 9% to 11% when comparing public to commercial insurance, according to the study. When comparing those in the lowest neighborhood income quartile to those in the highest, the obesity disparity rose from 12% to 14%.

“As with numerous other aspects of society in general, and health specifically, disparities existed before COVID-19. Such disparities were exacerbated by COVID-19. Disparities will likely continue post COVID-19,” said Dr. Harold Bays, chief science officer for the Obesity Medicine Association who was not involved in the study.

Some experts worry that rising obesity rates will continue to be an issue after the pandemic ends. Dr. Hassink said that obesity rates during the summer tend to rise especially among children with little resources and don’t go back down during the school year. 

She said obesity levels are unlikely to snap back quickly unless fundamental factors such as food insecurity and people’s economic situations level out.

To help tackle rising obesity, the researchers suggest that pediatricians encourage virtual activities that promote increased physical activity, connect families to nutritious meals offered through communities and focus on ways to stay safe and active outside such as going to parks and biking.

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