Pandemic weight gain seen in low-income children, soldiers

obese boy


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A new study in JAMA Pediatrics shows that low-income children and adolescents were disproportionately affected by pandemic-related weight gain, while a study in BMC Public Health shows more US Army soldiers classified as overweight and obese during COVID-19.

School shutdowns, increased screen time, and more access to low-quality food are some of the reasons previous research has cited for pandemic weight gain. But in a new research letter from investigators at the Children's Hospital Los Angeles, the authors said pandemic weight gain in kids was also a function of socioeconomic status.

"We know from watching the news over the past three years that lower income families were hit much, much harder by the pandemic than their wealthier counterparts," said Elizabeth Sowell, PhD, author of the letter in a press release.  

The findings were gleaned from data collected as part of the National Institutes of Health-sponsored Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study (ABCD), which has followed more than 11,000 children from ages 9 or 10 until ages 19 or 20, measuring their height and weight and conducting brain scans and cognitive assessments every other year.

As part of the study, participants' household incomes are also recorded.

Study will provide a natural experiment

Participant groups in the current study were defined as prepandemic (completed 2-year follow-up assessments before March 11, 2020) or intrapandemic (2-year follow-up assessment occurred between July 2020 and January 2021). A total of 6,359 individuals were in the prepandemic group (52.7% male), and 1,095 were in the intrapandemic group (53.0% male). All participants were ages 10 to 12.

While it's normal for this age group to grow and gain weight, in this study we will be able to follow these kids over time to see if the excess pandemic weight gain has lasting effects.

"Female youth assessed during the pandemic gained a mean of 6.8 kg per year—11.2% more than prepandemic female youth who gained 6.1 kg per year," the authors said. "In male youth, mean weight gain increased by 15.9% between prepandemic and intrapandemic periods, from 5.7 kg to 6.6 kg per year," the authors wrote.

And female youth from low-income families gained the most weight during the pandemic, an average of 3.4-pounds (24%).

The authors of the letter emphasized weight gain at that age is normal, but the increase caused by the pandemic will be a natural experiment the study can follow for the next decade.

"While it's normal for this age group to grow and gain weight, in this study we will be able to follow these kids over time to see if the excess pandemic weight gain has lasting effects," said Sowell. "We are also evaluating whether the group followed during the pandemic has changes or differences in brain maturation, as well as behaviors like anxiety and depression."

Army sees more obese members

In the second study, the BMI (body mass index) of US Army soldiers reported as part of the Military Health System Data Repository was examined from February 2019 to January 2020, and during the pandemic (September 2020 to June 2021).

The authors note significant growth in the body weight of army members; 26.7% of soldiers classified as healthy weight in the pre-pandemic period shifted to overweight in the pandemic period, and 15.6% shifted from overweight in the pre-pandemic period to obesity in the pandemic period, they said.

"Absolute increases were observed across every demographic category in soldiers with obesity; the categories that saw the highest increases were female, ages 20–24, White, and Junior Enlisted soldiers," they said.


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