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Children And Teens Gained Weight At An Alarming Rate During The Pandemic, The CDC Says

A new study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ties the COVID-19 pandemic to an "alarming" increase in obesity in U.S. children and teenagers.
Patrick Sison
A new study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ties the COVID-19 pandemic to an "alarming" increase in obesity in U.S. children and teenagers.

As a group, American children and teenagers have seen a significant increase in weight gain since the COVID-19 pandemic began, with the biggest jumps occurring in younger school-aged children and those who were already prone to obesity, according to a new study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The study, published Thursday, looked at 432,302 people between the ages of 2 and 19 years old and found, among other things, that the percentage of obese children and teens increased to 22%, compared with 19% before the pandemic.

Dr. Alyson Goodman, of the CDC's National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion and one of the study's authors, described the results as "substantial and alarming."

The CDC used data from IQVIA's Ambulatory Electronic Medical Records database to compare the study subjects' body mass index, or BMI, from Jan. 1, 2018, to Feb. 29, 2020 — before the pandemic — to a period during the pandemic of March 1, 2020, to Nov. 30, 2020.

The authors noted that "school closures, disrupted routines, increased stress, and less opportunity for physical activity and proper nutrition" were likely key factors for the increased weight gain.

Another study, published in August by a team of researchers from the University of Michigan and Kaiser Permanente Southern California, reached much the same conclusion, but the CDC looked at a much larger sample of children and teens.

Thursday's study noted that for severely obese kids, expected annual weight gain increased from 8.8 pounds before the pandemic to 14.6 pounds in August 2020. For moderately obese kids, the pre-pandemic expected weight gain of 6.5 pounds went up to 12 pounds.

Even children who had a healthy weight prior to the pandemic saw their annual rate of weight gain increase by 2 pounds, from 3.4 pounds to 5.4 pounds.

"These findings underscore the importance of efforts to prevent excess weight gain during and following the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as during future public health emergencies, including increased access to efforts that promote healthy behaviors," the study said. "These efforts could include screening by health care providers for BMI, food security, and social determinants of health, increased access to evidence-based pediatric weight management programs and food assistance resources, and state, community, and school resources to facilitate healthy eating, physical activity, and chronic disease prevention."

In August, Dr. Sandra Hassink, medical director of the American Academy of Pediatrics Institute for Healthy Childhood Weight, told NPR that school closures, disruptions to sleep and physical activity schedules, stress and social isolation during the pandemic had created "the perfect storm for having issues with weight gain."

"I think everybody's shifting upward," she said. "Kids that were in the healthy weight range are shifting upward. Children with obesity are shifting upward and children with severe obesity are shifting upward."

A Harris Poll survey conducted in February on behalf of the American Psychological Association reached out to 3,013 adults age 18 years and older about some of their experiences during the pandemic. Sixty-one percent said they had experienced an unwanted change in weight since the start March 2020, with 42% reporting an unwanted gain. The median weight gain reported by that group was 15 pounds.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: September 24, 2021 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous version of this story said that 61% of respondents in the survey reported an unwanted weight gain. In fact, 61% reported an unwanted weight change, but only 42% of those reported that it was a weight gain.
Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.