The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has given cause to people the world over to re-evaluate their health and general well-being. And while the pandemic has generally motivated consumers to engage in more active maintenance on their health, it has had a pronounced, negative effect in one area—childhood obesity.
According to a recent study, the pandemic—and specifically the resulting lack of activity and transition of more eating activities into the home—resulted in large-scale weight gain among children (JAMA. Published online Aug. 27, 2021. doi:10.1001/jama.2021.15036).
The study relied on information from the Kaiser Permanente Southern California electronic health record, which includes data from nearly 200,000 children between the ages of 5 and 17, making the study one of the largest of its kind.
Children ages 5-11 were the most affected, according to the study, with an average body mass index (BMI) increase of 1.57; adjusted for height, children in this cohort gained an average of 5.07 lbs. more from March 2020 to January 2021 than during the 11 months immediately pre-pandemic. Pre-pandemic, roughly 36% of children ages 5-11 were considered overweight or obese; that number now stands at 45.7%.
Other age cohorts saw similar, though less drastic, weight increases. Children ages 12-15 saw a BMI increase of 0.91, with 16- and 17-year-olds increasing by 0.48. Adjusted for height, this translates to a mean weight increase during the pandemic of 5.1 lbs. and 2.27 lbs., respectively, over the pre-pandemic reference period. Overweight or obese children in the 12- to 15-year-old range increased by 5.2%; for 16- and 17-year-olds, the increase was 3.1%.
Food & Beverage Insider insights
Several factors are likely at play to explain the general weight increase among children during the pandemic. While many children were forced to stay home and complete their schooling virtually, opportunities for exercise such as recess, physical education classes and walking to and from school all ceased. In addition, children were no longer receiving school meals, which, according to the authors, are generally healthier than meals eaten outside of school.
Perhaps the largest catalyst for this weight gain among children comes down to access to healthy foods at home. With many parents struggling to juggle working from home while also monitoring their children, convenience likely trumped nutrition in many households.
However, convenience, affordability and nutrition need not be mutually exclusive. Many brands have already, and will continue to, formulate healthier, convenient meals—think frozen dinners with added nutrients, juices with natural sweeteners or no added sugar, and chips and other snacks made with whole grains and vegetables. Of course, children typically are pickier eaters than adults, meaning any reformulated or better-for-you options aimed at kids must put taste above all else; parents may make the initial purchasing decision, but the children will ultimately determine whether a repeat purchase occurs.
While many adults have taken their personal health more seriously as a result of the pandemic, kids are, ultimately, reliant on their parents to ensure that same level of care. And as parents continue to be bogged down with work and child care, convenient, healthy meals and snacks aimed at children will likely be a popular tool to help combat further pandemic-related weight gain.