Obesity Among American Children Ages 5 to 11 Rose Significantly During Pandemic

A teacher takes students’ names at lunch during the first day of classes at Wilder Elementary School in Louisville. (Amira Karaoud/Reuters)

Childhood obesity rose significantly during the pandemic, according to a new study.

The greatest change was among children ages 5 to 11, who gained an average of more than five pounds, adjusted for height, according to the study published in Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Network.

For the average 5-year-old (about 40 pounds), that’s a 12.5 percent weight gain. For the average 11-year-old (about 82 pounds), it’s a 6 percent weight gain, according to the study. Before the pandemic, about 36 percent of 5- to 11-year-olds were considered overweight or obese, and that increased to 45.7 percent.

“Significant weight gain occurred during the covid-19 pandemic among youths in Kaiser Permanente Southern California, especially among the youngest children,” the study concluded. “These findings, if generalizable to the U.S., suggest an increase in pediatric obesity due to the pandemic.”

The study, which used Kaiser Permanente Southern California electronic health record data from nearly 200,000 children ages 5 to 17 to track weight gain during the pandemic, is considered one of the largest of its kind, experts said.

What’s alarming about this study is “how large the change was in a very short period of time,” said Barry Popkin, an obesity researcher at the School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He added that about 15 other studies in both high- and low-income countries reflect a similar trend, when it comes to pandemic-spurred obesity in children.

The JAMA report pointed to an increase in obesity among the youngest age group during the pandemic year that was higher than the increase in this group over the past 20 years. Among 12- to 15-year-olds, the study showed a rise in obesity levels during the pandemic that matched the increase that had occurred over the past 20 years. And among 16- to 17-year-olds, the pandemic year weight gain was about half the rate of increase in obesity compared to what teenagers that age had shown over the past 20 years.

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SOURCE: The Washington Post, Laura Reiley

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