March 30, 2021 — Obesity rates among children jumped substantially in the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a study published online in Pediatrics. Experts worry the excess weight will be a continuing problem for these children.
“Across the board in the span of a year, there has been a 2% increase in obesity, which is really striking,” lead author Brian P. Jenssen, MD, , told Medscape.
The study looked at a large pediatric primary care network and found the number of patients with obesity increased from 13.7% to 15.4%.
Disparities by race or ethnicity and socioeconomic status worsened, said Jenssen, a primary care pediatrician affiliated with Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
The researchers compared the average obesity rate from June to December 2020 with the rate from June to December 2019 among patients in the CHOP Care Network, which includes 29 urban, suburban, and semirural clinics in the Philadelphia region. I
The investigators examined body mass index (BMI) at all visits for patients aged 2 to 17 years for whom height and weight were documented. Patients with a BMI at or above the 95th percentile were classified as obese. The analysis included approximately 169,000 visits in 2019 and about 145,000 in 2020.
The average age of the patients was 9.2 years, and 48.9% were girls. In all, 21.4% were non-Hispanic Black, and about 30% were publicly insured.
Increases in obesity rates were more pronounced among patients age 5 to 9 and among patients who were Hispanic/Latino, non-Hispanic Black, publicly insured, or from lower-income neighborhoods.
While the obesity rate increased 1% for patients 13 to 17 years old, the rate increased 2.6% for patients aged 5 to 9 years.
Nearly 25% of Hispanic/Latino or non-Hispanic Black patients seen during the pandemic were obese, compared with 11.3% of non-Hispanic White patients. Before the pandemic, differences by race or ethnicity had been about 10% to 11%.
“Having any increase in the obesity rates is alarming,” Sandra Hassink, MD, medical director for the American Academy of Pediatrics’ (AAP’s) Institute of Healthy Childhood Weight, said. “I think what we’re seeing is what we feared.”
Before the pandemic, children more often had appropriately portioned breakfasts and lunches at school. But, during the pandemic, they had less consistent access to those meals, the academy noted. Disruptions to school, easier access to unhealthy snacks, increased screen time, and economic factors such as parents’ job losses also took a toll, Hassink said.