How to head off kids’ summer weight gain
Kim Painter, May 24, 2015
(USA Today) School’s out or about to be out around the nation. In an ideal world — one many adults say they remember — kids would spend the next three months swimming, biking and running around outside. Each evening, they would come home to nutritious family dinners.
In the real world, lots of kids will spend the summer watching more TV, playing more video games and, possibly, getting even less exercise than they do during the school year. Despite the dismal reputation of school food, many will eat junkier diets too.
The result, studies suggest, is that
summer is now prime time for excess
weight gain — a serious
health issue in a country where
one third of children
and teens are overweight or obese.
“Summer is seen as the time of year when kids are outside and playing, and everyone is eating all these luscious fruits and vegetables that might not be available in the winter. It turns out that’s a myth,” says Matt Longjohn, national health officer for YMCA of the USA. “Summer is not living up to our dreams of what summer should be. Those lazy days of summer are just that.”
In the summer, two-thirds of kids ages 5 to 12 spend at least three hours a day online, playing video games or watching TV, according to a recent survey of parents by the YMCA and the American Academy of Pediatrics. That’s up from one third during the school year. The academy recommends no more than two hours of screen time a day.
Meanwhile, just 47% exercise, play sports or engage in other physical activities for an hour a day in the summer, the survey found. That’s up from 23% in the school year. But the average kid may still move more on a typical school day — and not just thanks to recess and gym class, says Sandra Hassink, president of the academy and a pediatrician specializing in weight management at Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children, Wilmington, Del.
“On school days, kids are at least walking to buses and walking between classes,” she says.
Summer also is a time when many families struggle to feed their children, Hassink says. With school breakfasts and lunches off the table, they make the cheapest, most convenient choices
“Parents are going to find a way to feed their children in a way they can afford,” she says. “Fast food is cheap.”
Other factors — including changes in sleeping patterns, eating times and other routines — may contribute to excess summer weight gain, says Jennette Palcic Moreno, a child nutrition researcher at Baylor College of Medicine. Moreno and colleagues have followed more than 7,000 Houston-area children through elementary school and found that the summer gain occurs year after year in all sorts of children, but starts earliest in Hispanic children and children who are already overweight or obese.
A review of several studies, published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found similar patterns.
So what can parents do? The most important thing is to maintain regular sleeping, eating and activity routines over the summer — and to take advantage of the season to throw in some healthy twists, Hassink says.
For example, she says, longer evenings may give families time to cook together — and to take a walk afterwards.
She also urges families to look for free or low-cost programs that can provide daily routines for children who otherwise might be at loose ends. Groups such as the Y and local parks departments are good places to start, she says.
Connie Evers, a registered dietitian in Portland, Ore., and author of How to Teach Nutrition to Kids, has more tips for turning summer into a healthier eating zone:
- Take kids to the grocery store or farmer’s market and let them pick ingredients for healthy snacks they can make for themselves. Think fruit and yogurt parfaits or easy-to-eat veggies, such as baby carrots, cherry tomatoes and sugar snap peas, with a dip (hummus, guacamole, refried beans or low-fat ranch dressing). Use chips and crackers sparingly.
- Limit road-trip overeating. Pack a cooler with water, milk cartons, vegetables, fruit, string cheese, nut butters and other nutritious on-the-go options.
- Give them choices at dinner. Chop a big selection of ingredients – mushrooms, onions, peppers, eggplant, pineapple, shrimp and chicken – and let kids choose which ones they want on a grilled kabob. Let them choose toppings for fish tacos and pasta too.
- Tell them sugar-sweetened beverages – sodas, lemonade, fruit juice – count as desserts. If it’s time for a treat, she says, tell them “you can have lemonade or ice cream, but you can’t have both.” Popsicles and frozen yogurt count too.
- Give them a patch of garden all their own. Kids love to eat what they grow.