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Childhood obesity rates spiked during the pandemic 

The COVID-19 pandemic has had far-reaching impacts on public health, including a significant rise in obesity rates among children. A recent study has highlighted this worrying trend, focusing specifically on primary school children in the UK.

The research was led by Iván Ochoa-Moreno from the University of Southampton. The team found an alarming 45% increase in childhood obesity rates among four and five year-olds between the 2019 and 2021 school years. 

Effects on weight gain 

“Overweight and obesity prevalence rose sharply during the COVID-19 pandemic in many populations in England, with the largest single year increase for decades in younger age groups,” wrote the study authors.

“The greater effect on weight gain in children than adults may have been caused by the higher physical activity needs of children, the deterioration of healthy eating habits during the period in which the majority of children were schooled from home, the cancellation of organized sports and recreational activities reducing physical activity, and effects on children’s sleeping schedules and screen time.”

The experts estimate that, if unaddressed, the increased obesity rates in six-year-old children could cost society an additional £800 million in healthcare.

Focus of the study

For the investigation, the researchers analyzed body mass index (BMI) data from over one million children in England, gathered through the National Childhood Measurement Programme (NCMP). They compared this data from before, during, and after the pandemic, focusing on children in their first and last years of primary school. 

To project the long-term health and economic consequences of this trend, the team also incorporated data from two additional longitudinal cohorts in the UK.

Crucial new insights

Not only did the researchers observe a 45% increase in obesity prevalence among four to five year-olds during the 2020-2021 period, but they also noted a similar trend in six-year-olds. This impact was twice as pronounced in the most deprived areas of the country. 

Although the rates for younger children returned to pre-pandemic levels in the following year, the increase among older children persisted into 2022.

Study implications 

The disparity between age groups is significant. The findings suggest that while younger children can rebound from weight gain, it is much more challenging to reverse obesity in older children. 

“The sharp increase in obesity prevalence during the COVID-19 pandemic illustrates the profound impacts of wider societal determinants. The persistence in older children after the pandemic is in keeping with other research that indicates that successful reversal in older age groups is highly problematic,” wrote the study authors.

“In contrast, our finding of a rapid return to pre-pandemic levels in the youngest children suggests that a major shift in policy targeting under-fives is likely to be an effective means of tackling the growing population prevalence of overweight and obesity.”

The study is published in the journal PLoS ONE

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