The Journal Gazette
Wednesday, October 13, 2021 1:00 am

Child obesity down in state

Drops to 15.6%; statistics don't reflect pandemic


The nation's childhood obesity rate crept up while Indiana's inched downward in the latest national study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The report, covering 2019-20, found that 16.2% of American children ages 10 to 17 qualified as obese, or roughly 1 in 6. That's up from 15.5% in the 2018-19 report, but down from 19.3% in 2017-18.

Indiana's rate stood at 15.6%, below the national average and ranking the state 24th. Indiana's rate stood at 16.7% in 2018-19, when the state ranked 16th.

The researchers say the difference in state and national rates may not be statistically significant or indicators of trends but natural fluctuations.

And the numbers, they add, may not reflect the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The new report was not designed to measure the pandemic's impact on childhood obesity, said Jamie Bussel, the foundation's senior program officer.

But, Bussel said, additional research by others supports an increase in rates linked to circumstances surrounding the virus.

Economic stressors, food insecurity and less consistent access to healthy meals at school combined with increased sedentary time, sleep dysregulation and social isolation during the pandemic have likely contributed to higher obesity rates.

Dr. Sandra Hassink, in a news release accompanying the report, said the consequences of obesity – diabetes, high blood pressure and breathing difficulties – also increase the risk of more serious COVID-19 disease and worse outcomes.

That is of concern as more children are diagnosed with COVID-19.

Hassink is medical director of the American Academy of Pediatrics' Institute for Healthy Childhood Weight.

Bussel said the uptick in the national childhood obesity rate is another symptom of America's health disparities that have been revealed by the pandemic.

The national data on childhood obesity reveals sharp disparities mirroring those seen in the prevalence of COVID-19 – with the highest obesity rates among youth of color and from low-income households.

She said the foundation's studies argue for more than the typical advice to consume fewer calories, eat more healthful food and exercise.

They include reform of policies that reinforce “structural racism and discriminatory practices” that affect the nation's food system and access to health care, affordable housing and child care, the report says.

Among the recommendations are making universal school meals permanent and extending eligibility for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program's Women, Infants and Children benefits to mothers for two years after the birth of a child and to children until age 6.

The report also urges keeping the child tax credit to ease poverty and limit hunger and food insecurity among children and expanding Medicaid health insurance.

The report also asks for better and more timely government tracking of childhood obesity.

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