During lockdowns, American kids gained more weight than before the pandemic, and the number who became obese also increased, researchers report.
"This increased weight gain occurred in all youth between 5 and 17 years, but was particularly evident in children ages 5 to 11 -- an excess weight gain of over 5 pounds," said study author Deborah Young, director of behavioral research at Kaiser Permanente Southern California.
"During economic shutdowns like what we had in 2020, there needs to be continued opportunities for youth to be physically active and to enjoy healthful eating options," she said.
If current and future epidemics require educational, recreational and economic shutdowns similar to what occurred in 2020, interventions should be created to avoid excess weight gain, Young said.
"Parents can make sure their children have lots of opportunity for physical activity in times of pandemics," she said.
This includes involving them in sports, classes and lessons, providing free play outside, and taking them to parks and playgrounds. Also, healthy foods should be available at home for children to snack on between meals, Young said.
"During periods of pandemics in which online learning is required, teachers can enforce activity breaks and ensure that quality physical education occurs. They also can encourage snack breaks with fruits and vegetables," she noted.
For the study, Young's team used Kaiser Permanente Southern California electronic health records to collect data on nearly 200,000 girls and boys aged 5 to 17.
Participants had their weight measured before and during the pandemic.
Before the pandemic, 39% of children were overweight or obese. During the pandemic, overweight or obesity increased among 5- through 11-year-olds from 36% to 46% -- an absolute increase of 9% and relative increase of 24%, the researchers found.
The absolute increase in overweight or obesity was 5% among 12- through 15-year-olds, a relative increase of 13%, and 3% among 16- through 17-year-olds, a relative increase of 8%.
The obesity problem was always around, said an expert not involved with the study.
"Overweight and obesity were pandemic before COVID, and unlike COVID, represent a perennial plague with no end in sight," said Dr. David Katz, president of the True Health Initiative, a group that supports healthy lifestyles.
"The long-standing contributions of obesity to chronic disease and premature death have been compounded during the COVID-19 pandemic by contribution to the acute, adverse effects of infection with SARS-CoV-2. In much of the world, obesity has emerged as the most potent predictor of severe COVID infection in people under age 50," he said.
Unfortunately, the acute strains of the pandemic have generally distracted people from the importance of overall healthy living, Katz said.
"There has been evidence before now of weight gain trends among adults and deterioration of diet quality," he said. "Many impediments to preferred means of exercising may have reduced physical activity levels as well."
This study showing weight gain trends in children is concerning, Katz said. "This weight gain will increase COVID-related risks in the near term and potentially increase risks for diabetes and other chronic cardiometabolic disease over time," he noted.
"The world is mired in more than one pandemic," Katz added. "Attention to the one that was here all along -- obesity, diabetes and cardiometabolic disease plaguing adults and kids alike -- is more important during COVID-19, not less. We have abundant reason to be engaged in efforts to promote the benefits of good health, including healthy weight."
The report was published Aug. 27 in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
For more on childhood obesity, see the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.Journal of the American Medical Association,