Schonberg Family

More Obesity in the Pandemic? Kids Yes, Adults Iffy

In our weight-obsessed culture, the talk about weight gain during the pandemic has been incessant. So the presumption is that obesity has risen in the pandemic. But the data to tell us if this is true is slow to emerge. And like everything else about this pandemic, it’s very likely that the effects have been uneven. Evidence emerged from CDC this week that seems to confirm at least three prior observations telling us that obesity prevalence for kids has indeed jumped during the pandemic.

For adults, the picture is a bit murkier.

MMWR: More Obesity in Both Children and Teens

This new analysis appears in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report from CDC. The data comes from the IQVIA Ambulatory Electronic Medical Records database. So the numbers come from measures taken by health professionals, not self-reports. It includes 432,302 persons in a longitudinal cohort. Even so, this is a convenience sample. Though it comes from diverse geographies and includes persons with diverse race and ethnicity, it is not a representative sample of the the U.S. population.

With that said, it’s about as good as we’ll get until data for 2020 from NHANES comes out next year.

What it tells us is that obesity rates did indeed rise for both children and adolescents. The rate of increase in BMI doubled, while the rate of increase in the proportion of children with obesity rose fivefold. Investigators aptly call this “a sharp increase.”

The rise was greatest for children between the ages of six and eleven, which is consistent with prior reports. But it did rise for teens, too. These data also make it clear that the effects of the pandemic are disparate for kids who are already in the range of overweight and obesity. Kids with a lower weight status experienced less weight gain.

Limitations of the database did not permit detailed analysis based on race and ethnicity, though previous analyses have shown disparate effects in children who are Black or Hispanic.

A Murkier Picture for Adults

Despite all the annoying talk about the a quarantine 15 effect, it’s not so clear that adults overall gained weight any faster during the pandemic than before. A large study from Epic Systems data showed no real difference. Data from users of wireless digital scales showed the same thing. Some gained weight. Others lost some, while still others stayed at the same weight. Nothing to see here, yet.

Of course, these are not representative samples, so NHANES data might show us something different. But objective observations have not yet documented an overall trend toward more weight gain in adults. The moral panic over weight gain for adults in the pandemic does not have a basis in available facts.

The pandemic has been hard on all of us. For young children, especially, it seems to have sparked weight gain because of dramatic changes in routine. The answer is not panic or ugly confrontations about public policy. The answer is thoughtful efforts to make things better for all children.

Click here for the new report in MMWR, here and here for further reporting.

Schonberg Family, painting by Richard Gerstl / WikiArt

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September 18, 2021

One Response to “More Obesity in the Pandemic? Kids Yes, Adults Iffy”

  1. September 18, 2021 at 10:40 am, Allen Browne said:

    Good thought – “ thoughtful efforts to make things better for all children.”