Reporting on COVID-19 and obesity

About Bara Vaida

Bara Vaida (@barav) is AHCJ's core topic leader on infectious diseases. An independent journalist, she has written extensively about health policy and infectious diseases. Her work has appeared in the National Journal, Agence France-Presse, Bloomberg News, McClatchy News Service, MSNBC, NPR, Politico, The Washington Post and other outlets.

Photo by Jody Halsted via Flickr.

The childhood obesity epidemic was one of the biggest public health stories before the pandemic and remains an important topic for journalists looking for new COVID-19 angles to explore.

The CDC recently reported an increase in children living with high body mass index (the definition used for obesity which measures weight divided by height), a worrisome trend because those with obesity have been among the people with the highest risk for hospitalization and death from COVID-19.

“The COVID pandemic and the obesity pandemic in so many ways have exacerbated one another,” Jamie Bussel, M.P.H., senior program manager at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and co-author of an October 2021 report on pediatric obesity, said during a webinar about the report.

During the pandemic, the rate of body mass index doubled for kids ages 2 to 19, and those experiencing obesity before the pandemic experienced the largest increases, according to the CDC. Also, the National Survey of Children’s Health revealed that 16.2% of kids between the ages of 10 and 17 meet the definition of obese, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

In a study of COVID-19 patients age 18 and younger, kids with obesity were at a three-times higher risk of hospitalization and a one and a half-times higher risk of severe illness (intensive care unit admission, invasive mechanical ventilation, or death) when hospitalized, according to the CDC.

Factors leading to weight gain include school closures that disrupted routines and resulted in more screen time, increased stress as kids were cut off from their usual social interactions, less physical activity and lack of proper nutrition, the agency said. The pandemic also exacerbated preexisting racial and socioeconomic disparities in health care that likely worsened the health of children vulnerable to obesity.

Obesity rates are higher among Black, Hispanic, American Indian and Alaskan native youth compared to their white and Asian counterparts, and pediatric obesity is also higher among  children from lower income households, Bussel said. “We know that childhood obesity is a symptom of larger challenges families face in communities,” she explained.

Obesity isn’t well understood by many in the medical community as a disease. Still, those with higher body mass have been shown to have higher inflammation levels, potentially causing them to be more vulnerable to COVID-19, Fatima Cody Stanford, M.D., M.P.H., M.P.A., M.B.A., F.A.A.P., F.A.C.P., F.A.H.A., F.A.M.W.A., F.T.O.S., an obesity-physician scientist at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, said during a May 2020 AHCJ webcast on health disparities.

Reporters should consider looking “at issues like structural racism,” she said, adding that, “The Jackson Heart Study found that people who experienced racism have higher levels of inflammation and higher levels of obesity … and so there is an interplay in terms of what (people) are feeling socially, and with their genetics and other risk factors for COVID-19.”

A useful resource and important contacts

Journalists reporting on this story should check out this May 2020 blog post. Below are a few key contacts for your reporting.

6 thoughts on “Reporting on COVID-19 and obesity

  1. Roxanne Nelson

    Interesting photo. This article is about childhood obesity and yet the photo is of two normal weight young children. Especially the little boy in the back, who is thin as a rail. And the girl is sitting down to what appears to be a healthy homemade meal, with a plate of greens, and looks like some kind of noodles with vegetables. Is there any reason for this complete disconnect? Why not show a photo of obese children, and maybe eating junk/fast food?

  2. Stanley Sack, MD

    As a journalist who has also been a practicing pediatrician, let me also add this. I remember just a few years ago when the brochure for the local Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program showed a happy family with three smiling children, two of whom were obviously overweight! So the wrong message goes both ways.

  3. Bara Vaida

    Thank you Roxanne and Stanley for your comments. We specifically chose a photo of a healthy young girl rather than an obese child because we did not want a specific child to become a target of negativity. However Roxanne, your point is taken and we decided to change the photo with the blog post to fast food, which scientists say, in excess, plays a role in leading to obesity in children.

  4. Roxanne Nelson

    I’m glad to see you changed the photo. I don’t get the logic of choosing a healthy looking girl eating a plate of healthy food, in an article about childhood obesity. You could have showed a pic of a family with overweight children, or a group shot of overweight children–I see them all over the place. If we’ve reached the point of political correctness where you can’t put a photo of an obese child or children together with an article about the topic, well that’s pretty sad. But whatever, a plate of fast food is certainly an improvement, and it doesn’t take rocket scientists to put the fast food/obesity correlation together. The most simple epidemiology show that where ever the Western diet goes (especially fast food), so does overweight/obesity and the whole string of lifestyle ills–hypertension, type 2 diabetes, etc.

  5. Bara Vaida

    Thanks again Roxanne for your feedback. I hope you found the post itself helpful for your reporting. Dr. Fatima Cody Stanford is particularly great and I recommend calling her if you are working on a obesity related topic.

  6. Liora Engel-Smith

    It may be better to go with a photo related to Covid, such as children getting vaccinated or even the virus itself. We know that obesity is complicated and it’s not exactly about junk food alone. I appreciate the effort to try to strike the right balance. There are lots of issues surrounding obesity stigma, access to health care and how we treat people in bigger bodies that I think health journalists should be aware of. I’ll be happy to assist with putting together some tips if it’s something AHCJ is interested in.

Leave a Reply