Children, Obesity, and COVID-19

Childhood obesity in the United States is a serious public health issue that puts children and adolescents at risk for poor health, and the COVID-19 pandemic may have made this problem worse.

In 2017–2018, before the pandemic, obesity affected 19.3% of children ages 2 to 19 years, amounting to about 14.4 million children and adolescents. There were notable racial and ethnic differences in rates of obesity as well: 25.6% among Hispanic children, 24.2% among non-Hispanic Black children, 16.1% among non-Hispanic White children, and 8.7% among non-Hispanic Asian children. Children with obesity are more likely to have type 2 diabetes, risk factors for heart disease such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol, muscle and joint problems, and fatty liver disease.

A study of 432,302 children ages 2 to 19 years found the rate of body mass index (BMI) increase nearly doubled during the COVID-19 pandemic compared to a pre-pandemic period. This faster increase was most pronounced in children with overweight or obesity and younger school-aged children.

While children with COVID-19 are less likely than adults to develop severe illness, children are still at risk of developing severe illness and complications from COVID-19. And children with obesity may have worse outcomes from COVID-19. In a study of COVID-19 cases in patients ages 18 years and younger, those with obesity had a 3.1 times higher risk of hospitalization and a 1.4 times higher risk of severe illness when hospitalized, meaning that they were admitted to the intensive care unit, needed invasive mechanical ventilation, or died.

A healthcare practitioner putting a band aid on a young person's arm.

COVID-19 Vaccines Help Protect Adults and Children

Vaccinating eligible children is the best way to protect them from COVID-19, and it can also protect siblings who are not eligible for vaccination and family members at increased risk of getting very sick if they are infected.

Vaccination can also keep children from getting seriously sick even if they do get COVID-19. Vaccinating children can help them stay in school and safely participate in sports, playdates, and other group activities. COVID-19 vaccines help protect whole families and slow the spread of COVID-19 in communities.

School children in masks

COVID-19 Highlights the Importance of Addressing Childhood Obesity

Several factors contribute to childhood obesity, including behavior, genetics, and community circumstances such as access to healthy food and safe places for physical activity. This pandemic emphasizes the importance of taking action on childhood obesity to protect and promote healthy lives for all children. Government agencies, healthcare professionals, parents and caregivers, and others can take steps to reduce childhood obesity:

Federal government is:

State, territorial, tribal, and local officials can:

  • Create partnerships with community coalitions, food policy councils, equity task forces, and community members such as civic leaders, business owners, and school principals to make changes that promote healthy eating and active living in the community.
  • Make it easier for families with children to access and buy healthy, affordable foods and beverages nearby.
  • Help provide access to safe, free drinking water in places such as public parks, recreation areas, childcare centers, and schools.
  • Help local schools open gyms, playgrounds, and sports fields during non-school hours so more children can safely play.
  • Help childcare providers use best practices for improving nutrition, increasing physical activity, and decreasing non-educational computer and TV time.

Healthcare professionals can:

  • Screen families for food insecurity and connect them to community resources.
  • Routinely measure children’s weight and height and plot them on growth charts to calculate BMI and assess patterns.
  • Counsel parents about nutrition, physical activity, and optimal sleep for their children while avoiding weight stigma.
  • Connect families with community nutrition education and breastfeeding support services.
  • Refer children ages 6 years and older with obesity to evidence-based, family-centered lifestyle programs to support healthy development.

Childcare providers, school professionals, community organizations, and parents and caregivers can:

  • Serve fruits, vegetables, and other nutritious foods for meals and snacks.
  • Be role models by eating healthy meals and snacks with children. Use MyPlate as a handy tool.
  • Make water easily available throughout the day and limit sugary drinks.
  • Limit time on non-educational TV and devices in childcare and the home.
  • Support and encourage children and adolescents to be physically active every day.
  • Encourage good sleep habits to help children and adolescents routinely get a good night’s sleep.
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