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Obesity in children on the rise due to remote learning, study shows

Louisiana is the sixth worst state in the nation when it comes to childhood obesity.

NEW ORLEANS — Over the summer, there was fear that reopening day care centers and schools would cause significant community spread of the coronavirus, but now studies show little evidence that the virus is spreading there or causing more community infections.

And now a new report shows concern for a health problem in children made worse by school closures.

A new report calls attention to a serious U.S. epidemic made worse by the global pandemic, childhood obesity. And Louisiana has a high percentage of cases, more than 20 percent. The national average is 15.5. Studies show one of the reasons why.

“Obesity rates are much higher in these populations, in Hispanic and Black populations, especially if they live in poor neighborhoods,” Dr. Melinda Sothern explained what research has found. 

Dr. Sothern is a published childhood obesity expert and public health professor emerita at LSU Health Sciences Center.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation says the coronavirus pandemic is making it worse. Children staying home, not in school, are sedentary behind computers. They have no PE class, recess and there is less access to healthy school meals. This is especially important as the shutdowns cause parents to lose income to pay for more nutritious groceries. And there’s something worse.

“There is very good documentation in the research, that children with obesity will develop severe COVID-19 complications,” Dr. Sothern added. 

Doctors are seeing the same situation in adults with obesity.

Along with Dr. Sothern's expert opinion, we wanted children to weigh in. So we checked in with St. Catherine of Siena seventh graders in Metairie.

“It was difficult because I really had no motivation to really do anything. I was really lazy and I didn't get anything done,” remembers Rani Smith.

“Yeah, I was eating a lot like every second because I was just board all the time,” said Nathalie Robert.

And now that they are back in school with recess two times a day and PE class two times a week, it’s different for them.

“And when I got like back to school, I had friends motivating me. I had teachers motivating me,” Brenna Gutierrez said.

“When I exercise, it makes me be able to just feel better about myself,” explained Tyler Farley.

“It makes me feel healthier and more fit now that I can go out, exercise a lot,” Charlie Dovie said.

“I felt very unproductive, like sitting around all day on the computer,” Brayden Forster said of his lockdown days, “But now when I get home, I feel good about what happened at school.”

Dr. Sothern says playing, physically helps develop the brain and cognition. Being in the sun is helpful too.

“It helps with vitamin D, and vitamin D deficiency is associated with obesity and worse COVID-19 complications. In addition, it is associated with depression,” she said.

So for many lifelong health reasons, the report is a call to action.

Read full report here.

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Key Findings from New Obesity Rate Data

  • The national obesity rate for youth ages 10 to 17 in 2018-19 was 15.5 percent. The rate has held steady in recent years, though more years of data are needed to reliably assess trends over time.
  • Racial and ethnic disparities persist. In 2018-2019, non-Hispanic Asian children had the lowest obesity rate (5.9%) followed by non-Hispanic white children and non-Hispanic multiple race children (11.7% and 14.7%, respectively). Obesity rates were significantly higher for Hispanic (20.7%), non-Hispanic Black (22.9%), non-Hispanic American Indian/Alaska Native (28.5%), and non-Hispanic Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander (39.8%) children. 
  • There are also disparities by income level: 21.5 percent of youth in households making less than the federal poverty level had obesity, more than double the 8.8 percent of youth in households making at least 400 percent of the federal poverty level.
  • Kentucky had the highest overall youth obesity rate, 23.8 percent, and Utah had the lowest, 9.6 percent.
  • Five states had obesity rates that were statistically significantly higher than the national rate in 2018-19: Kentucky (23.8%), Mississippi (22.3%), South Carolina (22.1%), Tennessee (20.4%), and Arkansas (20.2%).
  • Eight states had obesity rates that were statistically significantly lower than the national rate in 2018-19: Utah (9.6%), Minnesota (9.9%), Kansas (10.6%), Montana (10.6%), New York (10.7%), Colorado (10.9%), Hawaii (11.1%) and Nebraska (11.5%). 

State-by-State Obesity Rates Among Youth Ages 10-17, 2018-19 

State | Youth Obesity Rate

  1. Kentucky | 23.8
  2. Mississippi | 22.3
  3. South Carolina | 22.1
  4. Tennessee | 20.4
  5. Arkansas | 20.2
  6. Louisiana | 20.1
  7. West Virginia | 19.6
  8. Oklahoma | 18.8
  9. Florida | 17.8
  10. Maryland | 17.6
  11. Rhode Island | 17.5
  12. Michigan | 17.3
  13. Alabama | 17.3
  14. Texas | 17.3
  15. California | 17.1
  16. Indiana | 16.7
  17. Missouri | 16.3
  18. North Carolina | 16.1
  19. Delaware | 16.0
  20. Ohio | 15.7
  21. Alaska | 15.4
  22. Iowa | 15.3
  23. New Mexico | 15.2
  24. Georgia | 14.9
  25. Illinois | 14.9
  26. Pennsylvania | 14.5
  27. Wisconsin | 14.2
  28. Vermont | 14.0 
  29. New Jersey | 14.0
  30. Wyoming | 13.7
  31. New Hampshire | 13.7
  32. Connecticut | 13.3
  33. Maine | 13.2
  34. North Dakota | 13.1
  35. Virginia | 13.0
  36. Nevada | 12.9
  37. Oregon | 12.9
  38. Washington, D.C. | 12.5
  39. Arizona | 12.1
  40. Idaho | 12.1
  41. Washington | 11.9
  42. Massachusetts | 11.8
  43. South Dakota | 11.7 
  44. Nebraska | 11.5
  45. Hawaii | 11.1 
  46. Colorado | 10.9
  47. New York | 10.7
  48. Montana | 10.6
  49. Kansas | 10.6 
  50. Minnesota | 9.9
  51. Utah | 9.6

Policy Recommendations by the foundation:
The new report highlights how key federal nutrition policies have been impacted by COVID-19 relief legislation and makes recommendations for further changes to support health and prevent childhood obesity.

In response to the pandemic, Congress provided additional funding to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), sometimes called food stamps. The funding was intended to help account for a jump in enrollment, which surged by nearly 6 million in the first month of the pandemic, but not to necessarily increase the benefit amount for individuals.

Recommendation: Raise the maximum SNAP benefit level by at least 15 percent per participant for the duration of the economic downturn.

The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, or WIC, has been able to change some of the ways it operates in order to support families safely. Those flexibilities nearly expired in September but were recently extended.

Recommendation: The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Congress should ensure that the relevant waivers remain in place for as long as needed and that states and WIC offices have the technical support they need to continue to serve families.

School meal programs faced unprecedented demand in the spring, and were granted flexibility to serve meals to students outside of school. Many school districts responded by not just feeding their students but their entire communities.

Recommendation: USDA should support states in using existing waivers to serve free meals to all students through the 2020-21 school year, as recently authorized by Congress.

“SNAP, WIC, and school meals all have proven benefits for children and families,” said Bussel. “Given the unprecedented circumstances families are facing, we must make sure that they reach everyone who is eligible. Doing so will help make sure children and families can stay healthy during this pandemic, and likely reduce the risk for obesity in the long term.”

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