At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic the rate of body mass index changes in children nearly doubled, according to a new landmark study focusing on the effect pandemic-induced changes had on infants, adolescents and teenagers.
School closures, disrupted routines, increased stress, and less opportunity for physical activity and proper nutrition all had profound effects on children’s BMI, according to the study, published Thursday in the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s report on morbidity and mortality.
As part of the study, CDC researchers team used a medical record database to compare BMI changes in 432,302 US children between the ages of two and 19before and during the pandemic.
BMI is a measure that uses height and weight data to track changes in weight relative to height.
It found that rate of body mass index change in children nearly doubled from March to November 2020 compared to the rate of BMI change before the COVID-19 pandemic.
All the children in the study experienced significant increases in their rate of BMI change during the pandemic, except for children who were underweight, the report found.
Children or adolescents who were overweight or obese pre-pandemic experienced the largest increases.
“During the COVID-19 pandemic, children and adolescents spent more time than usual away from structured school settings, and families who were already disproportionally affected by obesity risk factors might have had additional disruptions in income, food, and other social determinants of health,” the study’s authors wrote.
“As a result, children and adolescents might have experienced circumstances that accelerated weight gain, including increased stress, irregular mealtimes, less access to nutritious foods, increased screen time, and fewer opportunities for physical activity.”
In children with obesity, the rate of change was 5.3 times higher during the pandemic, which could lead to significant weight gain, the report said.
During the eight months of the study period, children with “moderate or severe obesity gained on average 1.0 and 1.2 pounds (0.45 and 0.54 kilograms) per month, respectively,” the CDC team wrote.
“Weight gain at this rate over 6 months is estimated to result in 6.1 and 7.6 pounds (2.8 and 3.5 kilograms), respectively, compared with 2.7 pounds (1.2 kilograms) in a person with healthy weight.”
The study team made a series of recommendations based on their findings.
“These findings underscore the importance of obesity prevention and management efforts during and following the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as during future public health emergencies, including increased access to efforts that promote healthy behaviors,” said the researchers.
“These efforts could include screening for BMI, food security, and other social determinants of health-by-health care providers; increased access to evidence-based pediatric weight management programs and food assistance resources; and state, community, and school efforts to facilitate healthy eating, physical activity, and chronic disease prevention.”