Much has been said about school lunches and the contributions they're making to the nation's childhood obesity epidemic. Yet new, surprising research has emerged showing that children's average weight gain triples during the summer versus the school year.
"There are a couple of explanations," notes Henry Ford Macomb pediatrician Eileen Hug, DO. "For financial reasons, many working families need to leave their kids who are old enough home alone, and there are safety issues associated with allowing them outside unsupervised. As a result, the kids sit around all day and eat, watch TV and play video games. The other issue is the way neighborhoods are changing. Many don't have sidewalks or places for children to play safely. Looking around our own neighborhoods, how often are we seeing kids playing outside? A cultural change has occurred, and it's not a positive one, although it is driven partly by safety."
Whatever the reasons, one-third of American children between the ages of 2 and 19 are overweight or obese, with health problems that were once seen only in adults. High blood pressure, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, arthritis, sleep apnea, gallstones and fatty liver are just a few examples. Overweight and obese children are also vulnerable to low self-esteem and depression.
Together time for health
"One of the big things parents can do is to make sure mealtime is a together time," advises Dr. Hug. "Don't eat in front of the TV, offer five servings of fruits and vegetables per day and watch portion sizes. Limit takeout foods, and eliminate sodas and drinks like Kool Aid and Hawaiian Punch. Do this 90 percent of the time. It's not the child that has to change - it's the family. A child is not buying the groceries or stopping for fast food. In a time where many families are too busy or financially strapped, this isn't always easy, but we have to start looking at our options."
Food is only one aspect of the problem. Kids also need at least an hour of exercise daily.
"Activity is a big issue, for children and adults," says Dr. Hug. "We are all so busy, but our children are lent to us for such a short time. We can too easily get in to the pattern of 'I'm doing this, you're doing that,' and before you know it, you turn around and they're 18. We have to make the time to take a 20-minute walk, ride bikes or just play. Get the Frisbee out, get the ball out. Parents will benefit as well as the children. As adults, we've forgotten how to play, so our kids don't know how either. We have to provide a good example. Taking time for these small things can have long-term benefits."
One family makes changes
Growing up, food was the focus in Philip Maniaci's family. Now grown, with two teenagers of his own, weight has become an issue for this Clinton Township family.
"It's a battle that doesn't end," Philip acknowledges.
He was not surprised to learn that kids can gain weight over the summer.
"It used to be just the opposite, but we don't have neighborhoods like we used to. When I was growing up, you left the house in the morning and you came back when it got dark. Today, if you don't know where your kids are, you worry. They have less flexibility. You used to go knock on the doors until you had enough kids for a kickball game. Now, everybody's life is so busy. Kids spend more time sitting on the computer, watching TV and texting on their phones. It's a lot different."
The Maniaci household has taken steps to ensure their summer will be a healthy one.
"We have a bike path nearby, so I got the bikes out and told our kids we were going to start riding bikes, incorporating it in the morning or afternoon, depending on my work schedule. My son got a job caddying, so he'll be walking a lot. For my daughter, it will be bike riding and swimming. We're not going to be sitting around this summer."
The parents also eliminated chips, cookies, ice cream and soda from the household.
"We haven't told them they can't have these things. We just eliminated the choice."
Small changes can make a big difference in your family's health. Start with eliminating sugary drinks and boosting exercise. And if you need help, don't be afraid to ask. The Henry Ford Macomb Center for Weight Management offers programs in Shelby Township, Warren and Richmond. For more information or to register for a free orientation session, call 1-800-756-9890.
Try these family activities:
- Jump rope
- Take a walk
- Have kids help with gardening and yardwork
- Enroll in a summer sports league
- Take an active vacation - hike, bike, swim
Keep fresh fruits, vegetables and yogurt on hand and easy to reach throughout the summer. Visit your local farmer's market and plan a meal together around seasonal delicacies.