Obesity is an epidemic in America and new research now shows that the Covid-19 pandemic only exacerbated the problem. Before the pandemic started in early 2020, obesity in America had surpassed 40% for the first time in 2017-2018. In 2011, not a single state had reached 35% of adults being considered obese. In the previous decade, obesity levels hovered around 30.5%, according to the CDC. Circumstances surrounding the pandemic- from a decrease in activity, lack of access to gyms and disruptions to fitness routines, stress (and stress eating), food insecurity, a slide in maintaining preventative health checks, and more all contributed to the increase in obesity levels across the country.
It wasn’t just a few pounds, either. Sources share that 42% of adults in the U.S. reported gaining an undesired amount of weight, according to a Harris Poll conducted in February 2021. U.S. adults reported gaining an average of 29 pounds. Depending on a person’s height, that amount of weight can shift them from being a “normal” weight as categorized by BMI metrics, to “overweight” or “obese”.
Considering the environment that most people had to operate within- loss of employment or a decrease in hours, food insecurity, juggling working from home while managing children’s remote learning, financial concerns resulting from uncertain employment, a sharp decrease in interaction with others, loss of support networks, not to mention concerns surrounding individual health and that of loved ones- it’s no wonder that stress levels increased drastically. As we shared previously, stress has been found to hinder the body’s ability to shed weight and even contributes to weight gain due to phsiological responses such as shifts in hormones as well as coping mechanisms tied to relationships with food.
Most concerning about the increase in obesity levels is that those who struggle with obesity – having a body mass index of 30 or higher – are at greater risk of coronavirus infection, hospitalization and death. In addition to the higher risk level associated with Covid-19, those that are obese are at greater risk for other diseases, including heart disease and stroke, two of the leading causes of death in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Obesity was an epidemic before the pandemic, and little was known on body weight changes in the past year for adult Americans,” said lead researcher of one study, Jagdish Khubchandani, a public health professor at New Mexico State University. “We wanted to estimate weight changes in the U.S. population and its determinants after the first year of the pandemic.”
To do that, Khubchandani and his colleagues surveyed more than 3,400 adults and found that 48% said they gained weight during the first 12 months of the pandemic — March 2020 to April 2021. Some factors, like whether people were obese before the pandemic, or if they had children, increase the likelihood that they gained weight during the pandemic.
It’s not just the adults
Anecdotal evidence and now research confirms that adults across the country gained weight through the first year of the pandemic. Less information is known about how the pandemic impacted children, but a recent study that gathered data from pediatric health records found a trend of weight gain among children, especially those ages 5 to 11. Among that age group, overweight or obesity increased from 36.2% to 45.7% during the pandemic. This increase in the obesity levels is significant and concerning for many reasons, with sources sharing:
- Children who have obesity are more likely to become adults with obesity. Adult obesity is associated with increased risk of several serious health conditions including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer.
- If children have obesity, their obesity and disease risk factors in adulthood are likely to be more severe.
Significant increases in childhood obesity solidifies the country’s upward trajectory of its overall population shifting into range of being overweight and obese. With the increase in overall population battling obesity, the subsequent health concerns will also follow. Some concerns include not only heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and other serious ailments, but also factors like a decrease in work productivity, an increase in those that experience pain, and a significant uptick in the risk of all-cause mortality.
If that isn’t concerning enough, the CDC reports that childhood obesity increases the risk of:
- Psychological problems such as anxiety and depression.
- Low self-esteem and lower self-reported quality of life.
- Social problems such as bullying and stigma.
During the early part of the pandemic, many schools were closed or operating remotely. At the same time, more children were at risk of experiencing an increase in mental health concerns due to their weight, all without access to support services most often available at school.
Obesity causes cognitive impairment
Along with the significant amount of health concerns associated with obesity, a new study shed light on how excess body fat may be associated with vascular brain injury and cognitive impairment. The study included over 9,000 adults between ages 30-75 who were free of cardiovascular disease. The results showed that participants that had higher body fat percentages and visceral adipose tissue were not only associated with a higher cardiovascular risk, but also vascular brain injuries (assessed via MRI) and lower cognitive scores (measured through a variety of methods). This is another reason why lowering weight to healthy standards is so important.
Obesity impacts all areas of our lives. Consequently, it is important to consider how we can improve our eating habits, the foods we eat, emotional responses and their relationship to food, sleep, hydration, physical activity, posture, in order to maintain a healthy weight and overall wellness.