Pandemic Adds More Weight to Burden of Obesity in Children

Pandemic Adds More Weight to Burden of Obesity in Children

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American children gained a lot of weight in the last year, setting a dangerous trajectory towards metabolic disease that requires urgent policy change, according to a new report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

“Our nation’s safety net is fragile, outdated, and out of reach for millions of eligible kids and caregivers,” said Jamie Bussel, senior program officer at the RWJF, and senior author of the report. She added that the pandemic further fractured an already broken system that disproportionately overlooks “children of color and those who live farthest from economic opportunity”.

It’s Time to Think “Bigger and Better”

Bussel said, during a press conference, that congress responded to the pandemic with “an array of policy solutions,” but it’s now time to think ‘bigger and better.’

“There have been huge flexibilities deployed across the safety net program and these have been really important reliefs, but the fact is many of them are temporary emergency relief measures,” she explained.

For the past 3 years, the RWJF’s annual State of Childhood Obesity report has drawn national and state obesity data from large surveys including the National Survey of Children’s Health, the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, the WIC Participant and Program Characteristics Survey, and the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

Similar to in past years, this year’s data show that rates of obesity and overweight have remained relatively steady and have been highest among minority and low-income populations. For example, data from the 2019-2020 National Survey of Children’s Health, along with an analysis conducted by the Health Resources and Services Administration’s Maternal and Child Health Bureau, show that one in six – or 16.2% – of youth aged 10-17 years have obesity.

While non-Hispanic Asian children had the lowest obesity rate (8.1%), followed by non-Hispanic White children (12.1%), rates were significantly higher for Hispanic (21.4%), non-Hispanic Black (23.8%), and non-Hispanic American Indian/Alaska Native (28.7%) children, according to the report.

“Additional years of data are needed to assess whether obesity rates changed after the onset of the pandemic,” explained Bussel.

Digging Deeper

Other studies included in this year’s report were specifically designed to measure the impact of the pandemic, and show a distinct rise in overweight and obesity, especially in younger children. For example, a retrospective cohort study using data from Kaiser Permanente Southern California showed the rate of overweight and obesity in children aged 5-11 years rose to 45.7% between March 2020 and January 2021, up from 36.2% before the pandemic.

Another of these studies, which was based on national electronic health records of more than 430,000 children, showed the obesity rate crept from 19.3% to 22.4% between August 2019 and August 2020.

“The lid we had been trying desperately to put on the obesity epidemic has come off again,” said Sandra G Hassink, MD, MSc, who is medical director of the American Academy of Pediatrics Institute for Healthy Childhood Weight.

“In the absence of COVID we had been seeing slow upticks in the numbers – and in some groups we’d been thinking maybe we were headed toward stabilization – but these numbers blow that out of the water … COVID has escalated the rates,” she said in an interview.

“Unfortunately, these two crises – the COVID pandemic, the childhood obesity epidemic – in so many ways have exacerbated one another,” said Bussel. “It’s not a huge surprise that we’re seeing an increase in childhood obesity rates given the complete and utter disruption of every single system that circumscribes our lives.”

The Systems That Feed Obesity

Addressing childhood obesity requires targeting far beyond healthy eating and physical activity, Bussel said.

“As important is whether that child has a safe place to call home. Does mom or dad or their care provider have a stable income? Is there reliable transportation? Is their access to health insurance? Is there access to high-quality health care? … All of those factors influence the child and the family’s opportunities to live well, be healthy, and be at a healthy weight,” she noted.

The report includes a list of five main policy recommendations.

  • Making free, universal school meal programs permanent.

  • Extending eligibility for WIC, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, to postpartum mothers and to children through age 6.

  • Extending and expanding other programs, such as the Child Tax Credit.

  • Closing the Medicaid coverage gap.

  • Developing a consistent approach to collecting obesity data organized by race, ethnicity, and income level.

“Collectively, over at least the course of the last generation or two, our policy approach to obesity prevention has not been sufficient. But that doesn’t mean all of our policy approaches have been failures,” Bussel said during an interview. “Policy change does not always need to be dramatic to have a real impact on families.”

Fighting Complacency

For Hassink, one of the barriers to change is society’s level of acceptance. She said an identifiable explanation for pandemic weight gain doesn’t mean society should simply shrug it off.

“If we regarded childhood obesity as the population level catastrophe that it is for chronic disease maybe people would be activated around these policy changes,” she said.

“We’re accepting a disease process that wreaks havoc on people,” noted Hassink, who was not involved in the new report. “I think it’s hard for people to realize the magnitude of the disease burden that we’re seeing. If you’re in a weight management clinic or any pediatrician’s office you would see it – you would see kids coming in with liver disease, 9-year-olds on [continuous positive airway pressure] for sleep apnea, kids needing their hips pinned because they had a hip fracture because of obesity.

“So, those of us that see the disease burden see what’s behind those numbers. The sadness of what we’re talking about is we know a lot about what could push the dial and help reduce this epidemic and we’re not doing what we already know,” added Hassink.

Bussel and Hassink reported no conflicts.

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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