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Kids Have Gained Weight During the Pandemic—Especially Those Between 5 and 11 Years Old

kids wearing masks

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Key Takeaways

  • A new study shows that children experienced weight gain during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown.
  • Kids ages 5 to 11 had the most significant weight increase.
  • When discussing weight, it’s important to remember that adolescents develop differently, and to not put undue pressure on children.

Weight gain was one of many unwanted byproducts of the COVID-19 pandemic. A recent survey found that 42% of adults gained extra weight during the lockdown period. Now a new study shows that children also dealt with the unanticipated gain.

Published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the study found that children ages 5 to 17 experienced significant increases in body weight during the pandemic lockdown. The largest gains, proportional to their age, were in children 5 to 11 years old. The good news is that healthy eating habits and returning to an active lifestyle of play and fun can help reverse the weight gain trend. 

What the Study Found

Researchers with Kaiser Permanente culled information from their Southern California health records. They studied data on nearly 200,000 children who were 5 to 17 years old. The dates they examined were from March 1, 2019, to January 31, 2021. There were some similarities across the board.

“Almost all age groups gained more weight than before the pandemic, but the youngest children were most affected. Children 5 to 11 years old gained an extra 5.07 pounds, 12- to 15-year-olds gained an extra 5.09 pounds, and 16- to 17-year-olds an extra 2.3 pounds. Considering their body size, five pounds are a lot for a 5- to 11-year-old child,” summarizes Corinna Koebnick, Ph.D. Research Scientist at the Kaiser Permanente Southern California Department of Research & Evaluation, and senior author of the study.

The study was observational, so it did not examine the causes of the weight gain during the time period. However, the information provides a look into some of the physical impacts of being restricted during the pandemic lockdown. 

Does the Weight Increase Matter?

Just as for adults, an unhealthy weight in a child can have detrimental effects. The CDC notes that when a child is well above a healthy weight for their age, the child is at risk for high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Each of these conditions can be a precursor to cardiovascular disease. It can also lead to breathing and sleeping issues, diabetes, and low self-esteem or depression. The impact of weight issues can be physical, mental, and emotional.

Yaffi Lvova, RDN

Weight loss is not a goal for children. There are many reasons for this, most related to the stress that it puts on the child's relationship to food and the strong relationship between that stress and future yo-yo dieting, disordered eating, and even outright eating disorders.

— Yaffi Lvova, RDN

In spite of this information, it’s important to avoid pressuring a child about their weight.

“Weight loss is not a goal for children. There are many reasons for this, most related to the stress that it puts on the child's relationship to food and the strong relationship between that stress and future yo-yo dieting, disordered eating, and even outright eating disorders,” explains Yaffi Lvova, registered dietitian nutritionist and owner of Baby Bloom Nutrition.

What is considered an average weight may not be ideal for your child. The CDC does offer an online estimator to help determine a child’s body mass index, referred to as BMI. However, children develop differently, and just like adults, have various shapes, sizes, and body types.

“If a child is in a larger body, it's essential to support them with radical acceptance. Guard their self-confidence and self-worth the same way you want to guard their body size,” Lvova adds.

Encouraging your child to love themselves no matter their weight, while also offering them supportive options that are healthy, is important. Striking a balance is key.

Helping Kids Be Healthy

An unusual situation like the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown can yield unusual results, like unexpected weight gain. Once children get back to a somewhat normal routine, issues with weight gain may be eradicated. If parents, however, notice rapid weight changes or irregular development, they should reach out to a pediatrician.

Corinna Koebnick, PhD

When a child gains weight very fast [they can cross] from low percentiles quickly into higher percentiles. This sudden change in BMI percentiles may indicate that a child trends towards obesity or an underlying health condition.

— Corinna Koebnick, PhD

“When a child gains weight very fast [they can cross] from low percentiles quickly into higher percentiles. This sudden change in BMI percentiles may indicate that a child trends towards obesity or an underlying health condition,” advises Dr. Koebnick.

Parents can proactively encourage their children to exhibit a healthy lifestyle. Experts suggest a variety of actions you can take, such as providing opportunities for kids to be active. Try replacing screens with outdoor play, games, or activities.

Additionally, make eating healthy snacks fun! Offer children food options that you enjoy eating, as well as items that they like. Add a dip on the side for a delicious alternative.

Another way to teach kids about living a healthy lifestyle is to set an example yourself. Kids will often mimic what their parents do. For example, you can get moving together as a family. Take a walk around the neighborhood, go for a family hike, or hit the biking trail.

“By seeking out opportunities for fun and deliciousness, your child—and you too, by the way—will learn to associate food with joy, and activity with joy. This sets them up for a lifelong healthy relationship with food and with their body,” Lvova concludes.

What This Means For You

Children gain weight at different ages and stages of life. As the study notes, unusual circumstances can spur weight gain. But keep in mind that an unhealthy weight for one child may be the perfect size for another. Make healthy, delicious food options available for your child, and encourage them to enjoy being active. You’ll help your child enjoy the benefits of a healthy lifestyle while feeling confident, secure, and happy with the skin they are in.

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Article Sources
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  1. American Psychological Association. Stress in America. Published March 2021.

  2. Woolford SJ, Sidell M, Li X, et al. Changes in body mass index among children and adolescents during the COVID-19 pandemic. JAMA. 2021. doi:10.1001/jama.2021.15036

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Childhood Obesity Causes & Consequences. Updated March 19, 2021.