About 15.7% of kids ages 10 to 17 in Ohio are obese, according to a new study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Ohio ranked 20th in the nation for childhood obesity among that age group, according to the “State of Childhood Obesity: Prioritizing Children’s Health During the Pandemic” report released Wednesday.

Ohio’s childhood obesity rate is nearly identical to the national average of 15.5%. That rate has remained steady in recent years, according to the report.

About 1 in 7 kids nationwide have obesity, the report says.

“Childhood obesity remains an epidemic in this country,” Jamie Bussel, senior program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation who leads the nonprofit’s efforts to prevent childhood obesity, said in a news release.

“The COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing economic recession have worsened many of the broader factors we know contribute to obesity, including poverty and health disparities. We must confront these current crises in ways that also support long-term health and equity for all children and families in the United States.”

Childhood obesity is extremely prevalent, said Dr. Marnie Walston, a pediatrician at Akron Children’s Hospital Healthy Active Living program.

Obesity in childhood puts kids at risk for complications – such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes – as well as musculoskeletal issues such as joint pain.

Kids also struggle with mental health issues and the social implications of being obese, Walston said.

She pointed to studies that show obese children have a lower quality of life compared to their healthy weight peers and are more likely to experience bullying from both their peers and from adults.

Coronavirus

Children who have obesity could also be at increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19. A novel coronavirus vaccine could be less effective for those with underlying health conditions, including obesity, according to the report.

The coronavirus pandemic also could be contributing to obesity rates. Some risk factors include decreased physical activity, an unhealthy diet, more screen time, and a poor sleep schedule, Walston said.

“We know what’s really important for kids is having daily structure and routine,” she said. 

When that structure goes away, kids are more likely to have an erratic sleep schedule, be more sedentary, and have worse diets, she said.

Many kids also depend on school for healthy meals and guided physical activities. When school was canceled, households were put in a difficult situation, she said.

Disparities

The report also shows economic, racial and ethnic disparities in obesity rates. Youth living in households with incomes below the federal poverty level are more than twice as likely to be obese than those living in households in the highest income bracket.

“We’ve seen these disparities for decades when it comes to childhood obesity rates,” Bussel said in the release. “This year, we’ve also seen people of color and people with low incomes hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic. In both cases, these outcomes reflect decades of disinvestment in specific communities and specific groups of people, often driven by the systemic racism and discrimination that are still so prevalent in our society.”

Children from lower-income households often have less access to resources such as recreation programs, extracurricular activities and public parks, Walston said.

Those families also could be living in food deserts, without access to healthy foods, or lack the money, cooking skills and equipment to make healthy meals, she said.

“Those are all things that make it a lot more difficult,” she said.

Recommendations

In its report, the Princeton, New Jersey-based Robert Wood Johnson Foundation outlines several policy recommendations for combatting childhood obesity.

Those include raising the maximum SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefit level by 15%. It also recommends that relevant waivers for the Women, Infants, and Children, or WIC, program remain in place, as well as continuing waivers that allow schools to serve free meals to all students through the 2020-21 school year.

“SNAP, WIC, and school meals all have proven benefits for children and families,” Bussel said in the release. “Given the unprecedented circumstances families are facing, we must make sure that they reach everyone who is eligible. Doing so will help make sure children and families can stay healthy during this pandemic, and likely reduce the risk for obesity in the long term.”

At home

Walston encourages parents to establish routines for their children, even while learning remotely. Kids should have a set time bedtime and wakeup time, as well as scheduled times for learning, lunch and outdoor activity.

Kids can pack a healthy lunch the night before school, even if they’re just eating it at home, she said.

For families struggling to afford healthy food, Walston recommends taking advantage of frozen and canned vegetables and fruits, being careful to watch for added sodium and sugar.

Families who are able could also use food banks or pantries to secure staple items, such as bread and cereal, and save their money for other items at the store, she said.

Parents of kids of all ages should model healthy behavior, she said.

And if a child has obesity, it’s not a foregone conclusion he or she will always be obese. Caregivers should talk with their child’s doctor about the child’s growth and how to slowly implement healthy changes. Kids who need extra help can be referred to a specialist.

“It’s definitely better to start early when this is a problem,” Walston said.

Reach Jessica at 330-580-8322 or jessica.holbrook@cantonrep.com On Twitter: @jholbrookREP.