Obesity Rates Among Adolescents and Teens Are on the Rise According to New Study

Childhood obesity rates are rising. Here's why experts urge parents to give themselves and their children grace and make lifestyle changes together.

Doctor with child and parent talking about food
Photo: Getty

Childhood obesity rates are on the rise, according to a new study published July 25 in Pediatrics.

Researchers found that the prevalence of obesity in people ages 2 to 19 increased from 17.7% in 2011-12 to 21.5% from 2017-2020. Obesity rates spiked significantly in people ages 2 to 5 and 12 to 19 but not 6 to 11.

The news may feel like a blow to parents, healthcare providers, and advocates who have spent the last several years trying to curb the trend of childhood obesity. Salad bars have made their way into schools, and sports leagues like the NFL have teamed up to get kids moving through programs like Play 60. But Amanda Stovall, M.D., an Illinois-based pediatrician, says many factors, notably the pandemic, negatively impacted these efforts.

"With school closures, cancellation of sports and activities, and less play dates, kids and parents alike have understandably become less active, spending more time in the home," Dr. Stovall says. "Even walking around school and grocery shopping can provide healthy activity, and people have not been able to do these daily activities."

Dr. Stovall also adds that screen time, which soared during the pandemic, can also contribute. "The more time they spend on a tablet, watching TV, on a phone, the less they are moving," Dr. Stovall says.

The differences are even starker when broken down by race and ethnicity. When comparing 2011-12 to 2017-2020, obesity increased from:

· 21.8% to 27% in Mexican Americans

· 19.5% to 23.8% in non-Hispanic Blacks

· 15% to 18.4% in non-Hispanic whites

These stats are not necessarily surprising. Dr. Stovall says Black and Latinx children were already more at risk for obesity, and the pandemic exacerbated systemic issues that contribute to obesity. Black workers, particularly women, were more likely to be unemployed during the pandemic. Dyan Hes, M.D. of Gramercy Pediatrics points out that those who were employed had less access to work-from-home accommodations, so they couldn't monitor their children's remote learning, physical activity, or lunches that the school would typically provide.

More than 120,000 children lost a caregiver during the pandemic, and Black and Latinx children were disproportionately affected.

Economic hardships can make it more challenging to access nutritious foods, and the mental health toll of losing a family member may also factor into a child's ability or desire to maintain physical activity and eat healthy foods.

"It is important to realize the complexity between what is going on in the home and in the community and how the child is doing, physically and emotionally," Dr. Stovall says.

Though the researchers did not break down obesity rates among children of low-economic status or living in poverty, Dr. Hes would not be surprised if they were also disproportionately affected.

"Children raised in lower-income communities have much less access to fresh food," Dr. Hes says. "These neighborhoods are often called food deserts. In these neighborhoods, you may find a fast-food restaurant but no supermarket."

Not everything is in parents' control. Underserved and marginalized communities need assistance to address systemic issues, such as economic challenges and food access. That's something that will require funding, legislation, and commitment from local and federal leaders.

What's more, discussing weight, food, and physical activity with a child is tricky. Parents want to avoid causing body image issues while helping them learn and maintain healthy habits. Experts share it's possible to tackle these topics in a body-positive way.

Emphasize Strength Over Appearance

Dr. Stovall says it's important to emphasize to children and adolescents that there is more to our bodies than meets the eye. "Instead of talking about how our bodies look, try focusing on what our bodies can do," Dr. Stovall says. For example, Dr. Stovall says trying, "Your legs are strong to help you jump high in ballet class," instead of "You look pretty in your ballet outfit."

Dr. Stovall says it may also help adult caregivers appreciate themselves in a new way. Try saying, "I love that I have strong arms to push you high on the swing."

"Children do what they see and say what they hear," Dr. Stovall says. "When a child hears a parent constantly criticizing her appearance, they are more likely to do the same."

Avoid Using Food as a Reward

Dr. Stovall says it's not uncommon for caregivers to use food, such as candy and cookies, as a reward. She suggests thinking outside of the box instead. "What else motivates your child?" she suggests asking yourself. "Time with you? Let them pick a book to read together and when to read it. Color a page together…Get creative."

Eat Together

Making mealtimes a family affair isn't simply a bonding activity. It can help shape attitudes toward food. "Try to focus the conversation and attention on anything but the food," Dr. Stovall says. "Sure, you can comment on your grandma's famous lasagna recipe, but try to shift the focus away from what and how much your child is eating."

Everyone has their role during dinner. "The parent's job is to offer the food, and the kid's job is to eat—or not—eat it," Dr. Stovall says. "If they choose not to eat it, do not feel obligated to make them a separate meal. Reassure them if they are not hungry for lasagna, they will still have their night snack as always."

Cooking the meal together can also help children learn about ingredients and nutrition. Dr. Hes suggests looking on Pinterest for nutritious meals together that children can help prepare.

Reimagine Dessert

It's natural for children to have a sweet tooth. But, real talk: You know cookies aren't as nutritious as broccoli. Dr. Stovall says re-thinking dessert servings may help level the food playing field. "Instead of having dessert only after meals or special occasions, try having an age-appropriate serving [of it] with the rest of the meal," Dr. Stovall says. "This will help children view these foods similar to other foods."

How you respond to constant requests for desserts can also help ensure the child sweets are not off-limits, even if you aren't going to have them right now.

"Try responding with a yes followed by your conditions," Dr. Stovall said. "So, the next time [the child] asks for more cookies, try, 'Yes, we can have more cookies with our lunch tomorrow. You have the rest of your spaghetti on your plate if you are still hungry.'"

Give Yourself—and Child—Grace

It has been a challenging few years. Dr. Hes urges caregivers not to dwell on the past. "At this point, we need to look to the future," she says.

Dr. Hes suggests regrouping and focusing on building a healthy menu as a family with five servings of fruits and vegetables each day, plus lean proteins and whole grains. Ensuring children get one hour of moderate or vigorous exercise each day is also essential and can be done by going to parks or taking a family walk after dinner.

"If the family makes the changes together, it is easier for a child to adapt," Dr. Hes says. Dr. Hes says local community centers, like YMCAs and Boys & Girls Clubs, also offer low-cost chances for kids to socialize and move.

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