Study: Tennessee has 4th worst childhood obesity rate as pandemic presents more challenges


NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — A new report showed Kentucky was the worst state in the country when it comes to childhood obesity, and Tennessee wasn’t far behind at number four.

According to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 20.4% of young people ages 10 to 17 in Tennessee have obesity. In Kentucky, it’s 23.8%. The statistics came from the 2018-19 National Survey of Children’s Health (NSCH), along with analysis conducted by the Health Resources and Services Administration’s Maternal and Child Health Bureau.

“That’s not necessarily because kids and families are making different decisions or worse decisions in Tennessee. It’s really about what resources are available to families to nourish their kids and keep them at a healthy weight,” said Dr. Giridhar Mallya, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Senior Policy Officer. “So that’s everything from do you have a store in your community that provides healthy, fresh, affordable foods, are families making enough money to afford healthy and affordable foods, and are there places in your community where kids can be physically active in a place that is safe both in terms of the structures like the playgrounds and the parks but is it also safe in terms of issues of gun violence or other things that may affect the ability of kids to play safely outside.”

The report also found childhood obesity affected more kids of color. Now, there is a concern about how the COVID-19 pandemic will impact childhood obesity.

“Among kids that are hospitalized from COVID, and that’s still relatively rare compared to adults, but among kids that are hospitalized obesity is the most common chronic condition,” said Dr. Mallya, adding that almost half of the kids hospitalized with COVID-19 had obesity. Also, he said many patterns established during childhood, like obesity, carry over into adolescence and adulthood, and adults are also more likely to get a severe COVID-19 infection if they have obesity.

The other concern was how COVID-19’s impact on the economy will factor into childhood obesity. Many children were forced to stay home from school due to the pandemic, which is where they had access to healthy food and physical activities.

“Families are struggling economically. They’re losing jobs, they’re working less, or people have gotten sick from COVID and are not able to work. What we know is that even outside the context of a pandemic, when families are struggling financially they’re also struggling as well in terms of their nutrition,” said Dr. Mallya. “Unfortunately, the way that we’ve created our food system in this country healthy foods are more expensive. So what we’re really concerned about is as families are struggling to put food on the table, pay their rent, just stay afloat financially that’s likely going to impact weight status and obesity among kids now and potentially over the next one to two years.”

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation urged changes to prioritize children’s health and improve equity in response to the pandemic and throughout recovery.

“The federal government has boosted benefits through the WIC program and the SNAP program. What’s really important for states and communities is that they make sure families know that they’re eligible for those programs, that they get them enrolled, and they help make sure families are able to use those benefits in as many ways as possible,” said Dr. Mallya. “Financial security is critical for good nutrition. So we are hoping to see a further response from federal policymakers whether it’s in the form of another stimulus check, extended unemployment benefits, or even helping people pay their rent. If families are financially stable they’re going to be more able to get their kids healthy foods.”

READ: State of Childhood Obesity: Prioritizing Children’s Health During the Pandemic

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