Study Raises Concerns Over Increasing BMI, Obesity in Preschool-Aged Children During Pandemic

Using data from more than 25,000 preschool-aged children in Sweden provides an overview in trends of weight gain and BMI changes that may have impacted pediatric populations during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A study from pediatric researchers in Sweden is shedding light on a concerning trend related to rates of overweight and obesity in younger populations.

Results of the study, which leveraged data from more than 25,000 Swedish children, suggest there were notable increases in BMI among children aged 3 or 4 years during the COVID-19 pandemic, with rates of obesity disproportionately impacting children in areas of lower socioeconomic status.

“Although Sweden didn’t have a lockdown in the same way as many other countries during the pandemic, the incidence of overweight and obesity increased in 3- and 4-year-olds, and even at such a young age the socioeconomic differences are evident,” said lead investigator Anton Holmgren, MD, PhD, a pediatrician at Halland Hospital and research associate at University of Gothenburg, in a statement.

As the obesity epidemic continues to expand its foothold and become a more pressing issue for global health systems, research into obesity in younger populations has taken precedent as health systems look to mitigate the eventual impact of obesity as this population ages. With this in mind, the current retrospective population-based, cross-sectional study was conducted Holmgren and colleagues from several institutions in Sweden.

The investigators designed their study to use anthropometric data from national quality registers for child health care in Sweden with the aim of using this data to examine changes in BMI and rates of obesity and overweight among children during the pandemic. Limiting their study to those with full growth data, investigators identified 25,049 children from 3 regions in Sweden for inclusion in their analyses.

Of the 25,049 included in the study, 16,237, had growth measures at 3 years of age, 14,437 had growth measures data at 4 years of age, and 11,711 had growth measures data at 5 years of age. For the purpose of analysis, Care Need Index was used as a socioeconomic parameter at the health center level.

Upon analysis, results pointed to a statistically significant increase in BMI in 3-year-old children (P=.028) during the COVID-19 pandemic. During this time period rates of obesity increased from 2.8% to 3.9% among 3-year-old girls and from 2.4% to 2.6% among 3-year-old boys. A statistically significant change in BMI was also observed among 4-year-old children (P <.001), with the prevalence of obesity increasing among boys and girls during the pandemic. Investigators not no statistically significant changes were noted in BMI among 5-year-old children.

In additional analyses stratified by Care Need Index quartiles, results indicated those in lower socioeconomic areas saw greater increases in BMI during the pandemic. Among those in the highest quartile for Care Need Index, the proportion of 3- and 4-year-olds with overweight increased from 9.5% to 12.4% during the pandemic and rates of obesity among these children increased from 2.5% to 4.4%.

“The study highlights the need for further efforts and interventions aimed at preventing childhood obesity, especially in areas of lower socioeconomic status,” Holmgren added.

This study, “Increased incidence of overweight and obesity among preschool Swedish children during the COVID-19 pandemic,” was published in European Journal of Public Health.

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