Mother with Two Children

COVID-19: Increasing Child Obesity and Disparity

Anecdotal reports have been coming for some time. As early as June, research reports told us COVID-19 was changing the patterns of life for children in ways that could make obesity worse. Then it was speculation. But now, the data is coming in and it really does not look good. A new report in Pediatrics tells us obesity is rising in children. Furthermore, the pattern of this rise in child obesity points to rising health disparity.

Data from a Large Health System in Philadelphia

These data come from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Care Network. Brian Jenssen and colleagues examined medical records from 500,417 medical visits. Average patient age was 9.2 years. In the sample 21 percent of patients were Black and 30 percent had public health insurance.

Comparing data from June to December of 2020 to 2019, they found a jump in obesity prevalence from 13.7 to 15.4 percent. The biggest increases occurred in children between the ages of five and nine and those who were Black or Hispanic. Bigger increases also came for children with public insurance and lower household income.

These numbers compliment data from other health systems.

Squeezing Families with Less

Disparities in obesity were already alarming, said the authors. But the pandemic meant that they grew wider. Families with more economic resources have ways to cope with the stress of the pandemic. Families with less feel more of a squeeze and the children suffer.

The authors explain how our response to the pandemic has made this happen:

“Efforts to reduce COVID-19 transmission have likely contributed to worsening pediatric obesity. Families with children have faced the difficulties of managing virtual schooling, limited physical activity, and increased reliance on more heavily-processed and calorie-dense foods. For disadvantaged families, many of the risk factors that have been shown to promote weight gain during the summer months are present in this pandemic. These include disrupted family routines, sleep dysregulation, reduced physical activity, increased screen time, increased access to unhealthy snacks, and less consistent access to appropriately portioned meals through school.”

Looking Ahead

Child poverty, COVID-19, and obesity are conspiring to amplify health disparity. COVID relief could slash child poverty by half in the U.S. So that might bring welcome improvements in this dire situation. But child poverty, obesity, and health disparity are not confined to the U.S. Around the world, child poverty is on the rise because of COVID-19.

As the world rebounds from this pandemic, we must attend to the disparities it has widened.

Click here for the study in Pediatrics, here and here for more on COVID-19 and global child poverty.

Mother with Two Children, painting by Egon Schiele / WikiArt

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April 8, 2021

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