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Study Quantifies Pandemic Rise in Childhood Obesity

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The coronavirus pandemic has been especially tumultuous for children as they hunkered down over the past year and a half, experiencing disrupted schooling, increased social isolation and heightened anxiety at a time when millions of households have been buffeted by upheaval.

The crisis, it turns out, has also been linked to substantial excess weight gain among children and adolescents, according to a recent study published in the medical journal JAMA.

The researchers found a 9 percent increase in obesity among children ages 5 to 11, with an average weight gain of five pounds during the pandemic. Among adolescents, 16- and 17-year-olds gained an average of two additional pounds, they found.

The study, which analyzed electronic health records for nearly 200,000 young people in the Kaiser Permanente health network in Southern California, confirms what many Americans have experienced firsthand: The pandemic expanded waistlines.

Experts said the study was among the first to quantify the effects on young people of the disruptions to normal activities and resources. “We know that kids have been gaining weight during the pandemic, but the numbers are shocking and worse than I expected,” said Dr. Sarah Barlow, a childhood obesity specialist at Children’s Health in Dallas who was not involved with the study.

Some weight gain can be tied to the school closures that limited access to physical activity and nutritious meal programs. Remote learning, experts say, has often meant more sedentary time — and more access to the refrigerator.

Dr. Rachana Shah, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, noted the pandemic’s effects on mental health and how stress can lead to poorer eating habits. Dr. Shah, who specializes in metabolic and obesity-related illnesses, said, “During Covid, a lot of the people have been even more stretched and less able to provide their kids with healthy options.” She added that food can become “a coping mechanism” for those with anxiety or depression.

Dr. Deborah Young, the director of Kaiser Permanente’s division of behavioral research and an author of the study, said she expected the obesity spike to decline as children returned to school and their routines, but she and others expressed concern that not everyone would shed the excess pounds.

“Excess weight in adolescence and young adulthood translates into excess weight in adulthood and all the comorbidities associated with that, like heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure,” she said.

Jamie Bussel, a senior program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation who focuses on childhood obesity, said the pandemic had worsened systemic problems like the lack of access to healthy foods in poorer communities and the ubiquity of junk food and sugary drinks.

“Covid really highlighted how negligent our food system really is,” she said. “We need long-term policy fixes. Otherwise, we’re just putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound.”


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