The summer sun is known for its health risks, but when it comes to children and those months spent free of school, there is another very real danger–that of weight gain.
According to research from Harvard University, academics isn’t the only area kids start to fall behind in when it comes to a break in the school year. Even though it may seem like kids are outside and more active because the weather is nicer in the summer, the evidence suggests that children fall into some seriously unhealthy habits when out of the structured setting school provides.
And out of all the children most at-risk for summer weight gain, Hispanics and African-American children top the list.
“This is exactly what I see all the time,” Dr. Keith Ayoob, associate professor of clinical pediatrics and director of the Nutrition Clinic, told CBS News. “I work with a lot of African-American and Hispanic children who are of low-income, inner-city minority population. They are home a lot more, they eat a lot more because they have exposure at home and they’re less active. They get to do all their leisure activities that are sedentary.”
The new study also indicates minority children and those living in poverty tend to depend on school breakfasts and lunches when it comes to proper nutrition. Without these resources, children are more likely to eat unhealthy, high calorie meals.
Researchers also say enjoyable activities for the modern child revolve more around computer programs, television and social media electronics. Not only do these habits cause children to be more sedentary, they also facilitate snacking throughout the day. What’s more, children on summer vacation tend to have more irregular sleep patterns which can contribute to weight gain.
In 2013, researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, found a lack of sleep not only makes the brain more susceptible to the effects of junk food, it also makes the body less able to restrain the urge to snack on unhealthy treats. In addition to the effects on the brain, research indicates a lack of sleep can cause the stress hormone cortisol to rise which in turn causes an increase in appetite.
So how do parents combat this summer weight gain in children? Experts say it’s not difficult at all. First, parents need to realize that summer weight gain is an issue. Next, time restrictions need to be placed on sedentary activities like computers, game consoles and television. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests children limit their sedentary activities to 2 hours a day, with restrictions also placed on snacks and frequency of snacks.
The next challenge for some parents will be to find children activities they enjoy which promote physical health. This can mean signing children up for summer camps or summer programs, or it could simply mean introducing children to a new activity like trail running or mountain biking.
“I want no child left on his behind,” said Ayoob. “Kids need to be more active and this is exactly the time that kids can get active. It’s a mistake when parents assume kids are going to be more active in the summer and they’ll just lose weight that they gained.”