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Childhood obesity in U.S. accelerated during pandemic, study finds

A close-up of a beam scale in New York.
A study by researchers at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ties the COVID-19 pandemic to an “alarming” increase in obesity in U.S. children and teenagers.
(Patrick Sison/Associated Press)

A new study ties the COVID-19 pandemic to an “alarming” increase in obesity in U.S. children and teenagers.

Childhood obesity has been increasing for decades, but the new work suggests an acceleration last year — especially in those who already were obese when the pandemic began.

The results signal a “profound increase in weight gain for kids” and are “substantial and alarming,” said one of the study’s authors, Dr. Alyson Goodman of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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It’s also a sign of a vicious cycle. The pandemic appears to be worsening the nation’s longstanding obesity epidemic, and obesity can put people at risk for more severe illness after coronavirus infection.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said people who are merely overweight, not just the obese, may be at high risk of a serious case of COVID-19.

The CDC published the study Thursday in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. It’s the largest yet to look at obesity trends during the pandemic.

The study found:

• An estimated 22% of children and teens were obese last August, up from 19% a year earlier.

• Before the pandemic, children who had a healthy weight were gaining an average of 3.4 pounds a year. That rose to 5.4 pounds during the pandemic.

• For kids who were moderately obese, expected weight gain rose from 6.5 pounds a year before the pandemic to 12 pounds after.

• For severely obese kids, expected annual weight gain increased from 8.8 pounds to 14.6 pounds.

The rate of obesity jumped most dramatically in kids ages 6 to 11, who are more dependent on their parents and may have been more affected when schools suspended in-person classes, the researchers said.

The research was based on a review of the medical records of more than 432,000 kids and teens, ages 2 to 19, who were weighed and measured at least twice before the pandemic and at least once early in the pandemic.

The study has some limitations: It included only children who got care before and during the pandemic, the researchers said. And it also did not offer a look at how obesity trends may have differed between racial and ethnic groups.

Earlier this week, the CDC said the number of states in which at least 35% of residents are obese increased last year by four.

Delaware, Iowa, Ohio and Texas joined the list. In 2019, there were 12 states — Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia.

Those results were based on surveys where adults described their own height and weight, and are not as accurate as medical records.


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