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Experts: Pandemic inactivity reflected in Hawaii’s rising youth obesity rates

Published: Oct. 13, 2021 at 4:01 PM HST|Updated: Oct. 13, 2021 at 5:34 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Obesity rates among Hawaii’s youth are rising ― and researchers say the latest jump can be partly blamed on pandemic inactivity.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation reported Wednesday that in the 12-month period that ended August 2020, youth obesity in Hawaii rose nearly 40% ― with 15.5% of children (ages 10-17) considered obese.

That number puts Hawaii at 25th in the nation.

And health leaders say pandemic isolation and food insecurity are making an ongoing problem worse.

“Many kids gained between 20 and 60 pounds in the last year and a half,” said Dr. May Okihiro, a pediatrician at the Waianae Coast Comprehensive Health Center. “People have been so surprised, but it has been a fairly common occurrence for them to come in for an exam and we see that.”

Okihiro, who also teaches at the University of Hawaii John A. Burns School of Medicine, says the national study confirms what she’s been seeing locally for years ― obesity rates have been steadily climbing, even more so, during COVID school closures.

“They were snacking more and just not moving as much, not walking to school, not walking to classes, and almost all athletics were canceled and so kids were just much less physically active,” Okihiro said.

Those factors all underscore how changes in routine and even sleep patterns impact health.

Also fueling the weight gain is poor nutrition as a result of lack of healthy food, experts said.

“It’s an enormous problem,” said Hawaii Foodbank CEO Amy Marvin. “One in 4 keiki in Hawaii faces food insecurity, 81,000 kids, which is a number that’s almost hard to comprehend, but we actually have this year the second highest rate of child food insecurity in the country.”

To address the challenge, Marvin says the Hawaii Foodbank is working to set up accessible pantries at schools across the state.

“These are places where kids can get a healthy snack and then bring home food for their families on the weekend,” Marvin said.

“Oftentimes, when one child is hungry, they have siblings or family members who are hungry also, but we do expect to see these higher levels of food insecurity for a couple years.”

It’s a chronic and long-term problem that not only needs to change, but could bring ripple effects.

“It’s our physical health, obesity, development of pre-diabetes on top of that,” Okihiro said.

“High blood pressure, all those complications, our mental health. We’re seeing more anxiety and depression with kids. That has not helped with healthy eating either.”

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