The study included youth between 5 and 17 years with continuous health care coverage and if they had an in-person visit with at least one BMI measure before the pandemic (March 2019-January 2020) and another BMI measure during the pandemic (March 2020-January 2021, with at least one additional BMI after June 16, 2020; youth with complex chronic conditions were excluded. And of course, it’s highly likely that children without access to preventive care or health benefits who weren’t part of this review are reflecting these same concerning gains over the last year and a half.
According to the data published on JAMA Network, overweight status or obesity increased among children aged 5-11 from 36.2% to 45.7% during the pandemic, an absolute increase of 8.7% and relative increase of 23.8% compared with the reference period (pre-pandemic). The absolute increase in overweight or obesity was 5.2% among 12- through 15-year-olds (relative increase, 13.4%) and 3.1% (relative increase, 8.3%) among 16- through 17-year-olds. Most of the increase among youths aged 5 through 11 years and 12 through 15 years was attributed to an increase in obesity.
The conclusions: significant weight gain occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic among youths in KPSC, especially among the youngest children. These findings, as noted by the reporting group, “if generalizable to the U.S. suggest an increase in pediatric obesity due to the pandemic. Further research is advised to identify interventions as well as possible long-term detriments to children’s health.”
Additional research – and concerns - about youth and obesity.
As cited by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, scientists already had found an increased prevalence of both type 1 and 2 diabetes in children during the years 2001-2017. The recently published data was compiled through an observational, cross-sectional, multicenter study of a mean of 3.47 million youths for each prevalence year from six areas in the United States.2
We’ve also written just last year about research linking adolescent obesity and an increased risk of multiple sclerosis (MS). Research led by Queen Mary University of London, U.K. estimated that childhood and adolescent obesity is projected to contribute up to 14 percent of overall risk by the year 2035. The incidence was attributed to modifiable risk factors including BMI.
There are a myriad of articles and scientific studies over the years that show exactly how obesity negatively impacts our immune defense, making our systems more vulnerable to infectious disease. Obesity is associated with significant changes in the resident immune cell composition of adipose tissue, which disrupts the balance between pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory immune cells in favor of the former – and of this leads to a state of chronic low-grade inflammation that can subsequently give rise to a host of diseases in addition to neurological disorders like MS.
So what can we do to help our children?
Limiting calorie-rich, nutrient-poor snacks and meals is one aspect of a healthy eating strategy. Getting regular physical exercise (ideally as a family), replacing sedentary pastimes (e.g. video games and binge-watching television) with physical activity, getting adequate sleep, and practicing what you preach as far as healthy habits should all be part of your approach. Overly restricting calories or shaming children into losing weight most certainly is not the answer, nor is supporting what are often unrealistic body types our kids see on social media every day. Consulting your pediatrician or family physician for guidance specific to your child’s health or existing conditions should be the first step in achieving a goal of wellness and wellbeing.
Unfortunately, we know the pandemic also has resulted in financial hardships that impacted access to fresh, whole foods, replacing these with inexpensive processed goods and filling starches, for example, solely out of necessity. Families who are struggling with ways to provide better nutrition for their children should look to local agencies for assistance and review more resources at https://www.cdc.gov/healthyweight/children/index.html.
It’s not an easy challenge to overcome, but we must approach obesity today as its own epidemic of sorts if we are to ensure a better prognosis for the health of all children tomorrow.
In hope and healing,
Dr. Suzanne Gazda
References and additional reading:
Gazda Integrative Neurology
It shouldn’t have taken a pandemic to take a serious look at our health.
1 Woolford SJ, Sidell M, Li X, et al. Changes in Body Mass Index Among Children and Adolescents During the COVID-19 Pandemic. JAMA. Published online August 27, 2021. doi:10.1001/jama.2021.15036
2 Lawrence JM, Divers J, Isom S, et al. Trends in Prevalence of Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes in Children and Adolescents in the US, 2001-2017. JAMA. 2021;326(8):717–727. doi:10.1001/jama.2021.11165
Dr. Suzanne Gazda, Integrative Neurology