December 22, 2023

Childhood obesity increased during pandemic in Central Indiana, but may be on the decline

Across the U.S. more than 14 million children and teens have obesity, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. - Unsplash

Across the U.S. more than 14 million children and teens have obesity, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.


New research shows the number of kids who qualify as obese in Central Indiana increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Researchers hope families will work to address this issue. Thomas Duszynski, clinical assistant professor at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis, said it's much easier to make these changes when people are young.

“If we don't solve some of these issues now, we're setting up for more adults being obese, which then becomes even more difficult,” Duszynski said. “And then we get into more health problems, which could really diminish the overall quality of our life and our life expectancy, which we're already seeing.”

Across the U.S. more than 14 million children and teens have obesity, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Children are considered overweight if they have a body mass index greater than 27 or 28, and are considered obese if their BMI is greater than 30. It’s measured using someone's height and weight. 

According to the research, there was about a 36% increase in obesity among kids ages 2-19 in Central Indiana. Duszynski said the greatest concern is among two to five year-olds, who saw the greatest percentage of increase during the pandemic, and nearly a 100% increase in obesity throughout the past nine years. 

Duszynski said it could have been especially difficult to monitor the weight of these age groups during the COVID-19 pandemic since those kids are unable to take care of themselves. 

“Well, what do you do with a two to five year-old? Maybe you've put them in front of a screen and given them something to eat while you're trying to work, right? Those are things that need to be explored a little bit deeper to understand what was it about this group.”

Roughly 21% of the increase occurred during the height of the pandemic from 2020-2022 when many children were required to stay at home, and not move around as much, during remote learning.

But this assessment isn’t the same for all kids in the area since some schools did stay open during that time, or provided hybrid learning which allowed students to go to school a few days a week. 

The number of kids who identified as obese started to go down in 2022, and Duszynski plans to look at 2023 data in the new year to see if there is still a downward trend in childhood obesity. 

Communities across the United States struggle to compile accurate local data on childhood obesity because many hospitals are hesitant to provide patient data to researchers due to patient privacy concerns, according to Duszynski. That leads some researchers to rely on self-reported information, which can lead to inaccuracies. People may not have a scale at their home or they may not have the means to measure their height, so they make estimates. 

But Duszynski’s new report uses actual de-identified data from the IU Richard M. Fairbanks School of Public Health and Regenstrief Institute, which collected measurements of Central Indiana children ages 2-19 who visited a provider between 2014 and 2022.

The report was released while communities across the country have had conversations about Ozempic and other newly popular weight loss drugs. Although that medication is only for people 18 years or older, there's now four different weight loss drugs for children as young as 12. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics’ new guidelines released earlier this year suggested that pediatricians should offer weight loss drugs, and in some cases bariatric surgery, to children with obesity who are 12 years old and up, side by side with behavior treatment and lifestyle changes to their diets and exercise patterns.

Duszynski said those drugs will be important for people who struggle to lose weight using more traditional methods, like lowering their caloric intake and engaging in physical activity. But he also said the drugs can’t be the only solution for decreasing weight. 

“We'd all love to be able to take that pill and lose weight without having to change our lifestyle,” Duszynski said. “But the minute we stop some of those things, the weight will come back. So, unfortunately, there's not [a] magic pill yet.”

Duszynski said children and families should consult a doctor before deciding to use one of these medications. He also said having conversations with providers about ways to reduce weight should take place early in a child’s life so they may be less likely to struggle with their body image during their adolescent and teen years.

He encourages families to be cognizant of what is happening inside their home so they can make adaptive changes around their eating and exercise habits. 

“I saw some great advice today from a nutritionist that during the holidays, follow the rule of one,” Duszynski said. “Have one treat, have one appetizer, have one adult beverage. You could still enjoy all the holidays, all the treats and things like that just by reduction.” 

Duszynski says it’s important to also address disparities in access to resources such as parks, playgrounds and healthy lifestyle programs in different communities.

Contact WFYI’s health reporter Elizabeth Gabriel at

Support independent journalism today. You rely on WFYI to stay informed, and we depend on you to make our work possible. Donate to power our nonprofit reporting today. Give now.


Related News

Is there an outbreak of Lyme disease this year? No, but tick diseases are on the rise.
How supporting caregivers could make a difference in dementia
FDA approves a second Alzheimer's drug that can modestly slow disease