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Disparities in Childhood Obesity

The COVID-19 pandemic poses further challenges to obesity in the U.S.

Woman wearing a hat standing in front of a building.

Maite Pons/Stocksy

The rates of U.S. children who are clinically obese vary widely across populations. Overall in the U.S., 15.3% of children — 4.8 million — ages 10 to 17 are obese, according to a 2019 report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Yet the prevalence is 22.2% for Black youths and 19% for Hispanic youths, while rates for white and Asian youths are 11.8% and 7.3%, respectively.

There are also disparities based on household income level. Almost 22% of children in households with an income below the federal poverty level are obese, compared with 9.4% of those in households where income is four times the federal poverty level.

“The new data reinforce that childhood obesity remains a significant challenge for the country,” Lydie Lebrun-Harris, PhD, a senior social scientist at the Health Resources and Services Administration, told U.S. News & World Report.

The COVID-19 pandemic may only exacerbate the problem, according to a March 2020 article published in the journal Obesity. “There could be long-term consequences for weight gained while children are out of school during the COVID-19 pandemic,” author Andrew Rundle, DrPH, associate professor of epidemiology at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, said in a statement.

In addition to costing $14 billion annually in health expenses, childhood obesity can have an impact on individuals’ long-term health. “Childhood obesity is a major risk factor for many of the most important health issues individuals may encounter later in life,” Bellinda Schoof, director of the American Academy of Family Physicians’ Health of the Public and Science Division, said in a statement. Those issues include heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, respiratory diseases, and bone and joint problems.

One government program that has found some success in turning around the obesity rate is WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children). Serving about half of all U.S. infants, WIC provides healthy food and nutrition education to lower-income women and children up to a child’s fifth birthday. Among 2- to 4-year-olds who participated in WIC from 2010 to 2016, the obesity rate declined from 15.9% to 13.9%, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation report.

"There could be long-term consequences for weight gained during the COVID-19 pandemic."

TOPICS: Public Health