The percentage of children considered obese has been declining slightly over the past 10 years. But the COVID-19 pandemic may be reversing that trend, as children are likely to be exercising less, struggling with food insecurity, and unable to access school foods. Across the country, in-person schools are either closed completely or for only a few days a week, and sports and gym classes sidelined for those kids, problems for children have compounded. Add that to the fact that kids are forced to spend more time indoors, and the coronavirus worsening pre-existing health and income disparities, experts predict that COVID-19 could once again put childhood obesity on the rise. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) characterizes an individual as obese if they have a body mass index, or BMI, at or above the 95th percentile for children and teens. BMI is considered to be an incomplete measurement of an individual’s health, but it can be one part of a factor of how doctors decide how healthy their patients are — and with BMI’s on the rise, that could be a concerning trend.
According to a report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, around one in seven children are considered obese. Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, a Northwestern University professor, an economist said, “We were making slow and steady progress until this. It’s likely we will have wiped out a lot of the progress that we’ve made over the last decade in childhood obesity.” Although the rate of childhood obesity hasn’t increased nationally this decade, some states, including Alaska, Arkansas, Kentucky, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Wyoming, have experienced an increase in recent years.
This news is particularly troubling given new CDC guidelines that say that people with a BMI of 25 and over are considered to be at a higher risk for more severe symptoms of COVID-19 if they were to contract the virus. Lower-income people and people of color, two groups that have higher rates of obesity than other groups, are also more likely to experience the adverse health effects of obesity, which would put them at an additional higher-risk for COVID-19.
According to the report, people who make less than the federal poverty line are 50% more likely to be obese than those who make the highest income. The stress of the pandemic might also exacerbate disordered eating in many individuals, with the National Eating Disorder Association saying that it has received a whopping 80% increase in monthly calls. The COVID-19 pandemic has posed a myriad of challenges to families — in areas including healthcare, education, lack of child care, unpaid bills, evictions, job losses, and more — the long-term effects of which are still being measured. But as kids have fewer avenues to exercise and stay healthy, some experts worry that children’s health across the country could also potentially be adversely affected this year.