Tips for preventing summer weight gain in children
Some may blame the school lunch food and lack of recess during the year for the increased rates of overweight and obesity during childhood. With many budget cuts, gym classes are one of the first classes to get the boot. Children end up being sedentary most of the day during school- except when they change classes and go to lunch. Sadly, this sedentary behavior often continues on after school, when many kids go home to play video games or watch TV for most of the night. So now that school is basically out for the summer, kids should not gain excess weight- right? Wrong! Many studies show that kids actually gain more weight in the summer than they do during the school year . So what can be done to prevent excessive weight gain during the summer?
Serve appropriate portions:
Don’t worry- measuring food is not necessary. Measuring food is not realistic in the long term for adults, and it’s definitely not realistic for kids (nor should it be!) and measuring in of it self doesn’t teach kids WHAT foods are healthy. Instead, a good method is to serve children’s food on a 9-inch plate. From there, use the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) MyPlate as a guide to what a balanced meal should look like. Trying to eat based on the MyPlate guide is an easy way to ensure the intake of adequate nutrients and eating healthfully, without being so concerned with measuring and weighing.
Treat treats like treats:
Although treats like ice cream and frozen fruit bars are delicious in the summer, remember to keep these high calorie foods as “treats” and not an everyday available snack. Since kids are home during the day, their meal pattern will likely be different than when in school, but this doesn’t mean that all rules go out the window. As the parent or caregiver, you decide the “WHAT”. That means WHAT foods are available for your child to eat during the day is up to you. By having mainly nutrient dense foods around the house during the summer months will help establish healthy eating habits all year round. Limit the amount of calorically dense snacks in the house, but be sure to keep healthier snacks on hand as an alternate. Fresh cold fruit is a delicious summer-time snack, as well as raw veggies with different flavorful dips. Don’t purchase sugar-sweetened beverages like sodas, powdered ice teas or lemonades- instead try some citrus or watermelon infused waters. Brewing some homemade iced tea on your own is another good idea- this will drastically cut down on the added sugar –because remember- just one already prepared 20 oz. ice tea may have the equivalent of 16 packets of sugar!
The summer months in North America are typically warm and humid. Yes, this weather is great if there is a pool or beach around, but if there’s no source of relief from the heat, staying indoors is appealing for many kids. A decrease in physical activity during the summer months is likely a contributor to weight gain. Plus, increased screen time- TV, tablet or phones is very common, and often the hobby of choice for many. Although the America Academy of Pediatrics recommends NO screen time for any child under 2, and less than 2 hours per day for kids older than 2, it is quite obvious that many toddlers start watching TV at a young age, and most kids exceed this recommendation. But, physical activity is a recommended for weight maintenance in kids (as well as adults), so make sure you encourage your kids to stay active. Since children and teens should participate in at least 60 minutes of moderate intensity activity on most days, try to have some ideas planned to make kids want to leave their video games behind- swimming, playing tag, jumping rope, soccer and bike riding are fun ways to meet the recommendations. It is also important to lead as an example. If kids see that their caregiver sits around and watches TV all night and rarely engages in exercise, kids will think this is normal. Having activities planned in advance as a family is a great way to get everyone involved- plus it’s an added calorie burner for adults and likely more fun than going to the gym. Adults know that physical activity is associated with many health benefits like lower rates of cancer and improved heart health, but making the benefits clear to kids is also important. Instead of focusing on weight control and heart disease, make the benefits more relevant to them- building strong bones, getting better at sports, increasing self- esteem, improving mood and decreasing stress are just a few!
Breakfast and Sleep- Don’t skimp on them because it’s summer!
Just because it’s summer vacation, doesn’t mean that kids can’t have some type of schedule. Yes, it’s great to relax and enjoy the summer, but it’s also important to make sure they have some type of routine so that meals aren’t skipped, sleep is not erratic and physical activities don’t disappear.
Make sure children eat breakfast! Research has shown time and time again that eating breakfast plays a protective role against excessive adiposity in childhood and adolescence. Further, a recent study found that the odds of being obese increase in children who skip breakfast. Besides the relationship between a healthy weight and eating breakfast, eating breakfast is also associated with improved cognition and attention. So, make sure your kids start the day off eating. Some easy and tasty breakfast ideas (besides cereal) include Greek yogurt with sliced seasonal peaches, a whole-wheat waffle with fruit, or reduced fat cream cheese on a whole grain toasted bagel. Busy summer mornings? Make breakfast smoothies the night before with low fat dairy, frozen banana and a scoop of PB for extra protein, or bake eggs in little muffin trays with veggies and cheese- and then just reheat on your way out the door.
In addition to the many benefits of breakfast, adequate sleep is also important. Going to bed very late may be tempting during the summer months, but it does more harm than good. Improving a child’s sleep may also be a strategy employed to mitigate the rise of pediatric obesity. Depending on the age, recommendations for sleep can reach up to 13 hours per day, but most kids don’t reach their recommended amount. Why is sleep so important? Many studies show that the less sleep a child gets, the higher his or her risk is for obesity. Children with less sleep also report increased cravings for calorically dense foods. Further, inadequate sleep is associated with higher consumption of pizza and refined sugars, which we know are not healthy.
In summary, try to stick to a routine and keep a set bedtime schedule. Use MyPlate as a guide for healthy eating and look up local outdoor activities for your child to participate in. These small summer adjustments can help prevent excessive weight gain during these upcoming months!
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2. Moreno JP, Johnston CA, Chen TA, et al. Seasonal variability in weight change during elementary school. Obesity. 2015;23(2):422-428.
3. Hart CN, Cairns A, Jelalian E. Sleep and obesity in children and adolescents. Pediatr. Clin. North Am. 2011;58(3):715-733.
Appreciation is extended to Kristen Criscitelli for drafting this post