NOTE: This article originally appeared in the June 2017 issue of CONSULT, UMMC's monthly electronic newsletter. To have CONSULT, and more stories like this, delivered directly to your inbox, click here to subscribe.
Children spending their school-free days playing video games indoors while grazing on processed foods high in fat and sugar can pack on calories quickly.
UMMC experts say summertime choices in foods and exercise can be a determining factor in children becoming obese.
According to multiple studies, children's risk of becoming obese is higher when they are on summer break than when they are in school.
Healthy choices in school cafeterias and physical education classes “appear to provide some obesity protection,” according to a study published in the journal Childhood Obesity in 2016.
“Research is needed to clarify where, when and why these differences occur, both to enhance the obesity-protective influences in schools,” and to offset unhealthy choices outside the classroom, the study said.
“Mississippi is still at the top in childhood obesity,” said Dr. Whitney Herring, director of Children's of Mississippi's Weight and Wellness Clinics at University Physicians-Grants Ferry and the Children's of Mississippi Specialty Clinic. “We've seen obesity in elementary school students go down, but severe childhood obesity has gone up, and we have disparities among children in certain ethnic and racial backgrounds.”
According to the Mississippi Department of Health's website, the vast majority of high school students eat less than five servings of fruits and vegetables a day or take physical education classes, and nearly half watch three hours of television or more each day.
A 2014 study published in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease asserts there may be a trend in summer weight gain, particularly among those in high-risk groups, including overweight children and teenagers and those who lack access to healthy food choices and recreational facilities.
“Further research in this area is needed,” according to the study, “as summer weight gain may exacerbate existing health disparities.”
Though children might celebrate summer's freedom, they get bored, said Krista King, a dietitian with Children's of Mississippi's Weight and Wellness Clinic.
“During the summer, often children are at home without anything to do other than play video games or watch TV,” King said. “Additionally, many children eat when they are bored, and during the summer, they are often around foods that they like.”
Summertime schedules can lead to lax health habits, too, said Keisha Luckey, a Children's of Mississippi pediatric diabetes educator.
“Summer can be a difficult season for snacks and meals, because sometimes children are home while their parents are at work, or summer schedules have families short on time,” Luckey said. “There's a big need for grab-and-go snacks, which are fine, but we need to make good choices.”
With a little advanced planning, healthy choices don't have to be difficult, she said.
“You might have string cheese and fruit available instead of snack cakes, or keep individually packaged 100-calorie snacks on hand. Fruits such as grapes, strawberries and blueberries can be portioned into zippered plastic bags and you could keep hard-boiled eggs in the refrigerator for a protein boost.”
Luckey said another option is inserting a straw or wooden stick through the foil top of small prepacked cups of yogurt and freezing them to make homemade healthy popsicles.
“Those are easy and high in protein and calcium,” she said.
Keeping cooking and preparation to a minimum is key to keeping children away from hot surfaces and making healthy choices easiest.
Warm weather can bring on thirst, but that doesn't mean children should load up on sugary fruits and sodas, King said.
“Drink lots and lots of water,” King said, adding that sweet tea and juice drinks that contain plenty of sugar and very little-to-no juice can add empty calories and promote tooth decay.
Planning a summer of activities and time away from electronics also can keep children's weight in a healthy range.
The President's Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition reports only one child in three is physically active every day. Children's time watching TV, playing video games or using a computer should be limited to two hours a day, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, but statistics show nearly a third of high school students play video games for three or more hours a day and log more than 7.5 hours of overall screen time daily.
Lifestyle changes are in order, said Herring: not just for children, but for the whole family.
“Visit a park, play games outside together or go for a walk,” she said. “You'll enjoy more time interacting as a family, you'll have fun and everyone will see an improvement in health.”
Healthy summer habits
• Plan daily activities to avoid boredom and grazing throughout the day.
• Keep similar sleep and eating schedules/patterns to mirror the school year.
• Decrease sedentary behavior and limit screen time to one hour per day of high-quality programming for children older than 2 as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics (use of screen media is discouraged for children younger than 18 months, other than video-chatting).
• Avoid keeping unhealthy foods at home - minimize access to sweet drinks including sodas, fruit sugar-sweetened drinks and sweet tea and drink lots of water.
• Keep all junk food out of the home - if chips, cookies, cakes, candy, sodas and other junk foods aren't in the house, it is less likely children will snack on them.
• Bring healthy snacks on trips to avoid fast food and other unhealthy foods while traveling.
• Eat breakfast every morning.
• Provide snacks with protein.
Snacks to have on hand:
• string cheese;
• whole apples, oranges or berries;
• peanut butter crackers;
• air-popped popcorn;
• boiled eggs;
• low-fat Greek yogurt; and
• vegetables, such as sugar snap peas, carrots, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, broccoli and cauliflower, with a low-fat dip or hummus.