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How to prevent summer weight gain

As a pediatrician and mom, I understand the health challenges that come with summer. Kids often want to fill their empty hours with screen time rather than physical play. Parents who juggle work and home lives may need the distraction that shows and video games offer.

With more free time, kids often turn to eating to relieve boredom. Summer get-togethers frequently involve high-calorie foods and drinks such as s’mores, hot dogs, chips, and soda. Later bedtimes and an irregular schedule can disrupt sleep, which is a factor for food cravings.

A study published in Obesity Journal found that summer weight gain is a real problem. Children in the study experienced an increase in their body mass index (BMI) over summer vacations but not during the school year.

While it’s normal and healthy for kids to put on pounds as they grow, gaining too much weight puts children at risk for medical problems, including prediabetes, abnormal cholesterol, liver damage, and sleep disorders. Extra weight is associated with lower self-esteem, bullying, anxiety, and depression.

Children and teens deserve to live in a healthy body that lets them achieve their full potential. If weight is a concern for your child or family—or if you simply want to improve your family’s health—consider implementing a few of these summer wellness tips:

  • Stay busy. Keeping kids and teens busy and out of the home is easier and more peaceful than enforcing a screen time limit. Playdates, park trips, library visits, and hikes are all free activities that engage the mind, body, or both.
  • Work on good screen time habits. Create a family media use plan that includes how to choose good content, set time limits, recognize cyberbullying, and be safe online.
  • Stick to a plan. Create an eating habit that includes three meals and one to two snacks per day. Ask kids if their body is really hungry when they request food.
  • Keep a consistent sleep schedule. Because the body makes hormones that control appetite while sleeping, sleep deprivation causes cravings for high-fat, high-sugar foods and drinks. Sleep requirements vary based on age:
    • Ages 3–5: Need 10 to 13 hours of sleep
    • Ages 6–12: Need 9 to 12 hours of sleep
    • Ages 13–18: Need 8 to 10 hours of sleep
  • Avoid staying up late. People tend to be inactive and eat during late-night hours.
  • Get in physical activity daily. Physical activity increases strength, energy, bone health, and muscle tone. It improves mood, immune system function, heart health, sleep, and blood sugar.
  • Plan ahead for gatherings. Preload kids’ stomachs with fruits, vegetables, nuts, and other healthy options before going to celebrations and get-togethers. That way, they can enjoy less healthy foods and drinks in moderation.
  • Make healthy desserts. Curb a sweet tooth by making homemade desserts. Dip fresh fruit into plain Greek yogurt and freeze. Or blend plain yogurt, fruit, and cinnamon together and freeze it in Popsicle molds.

If your child is age 20 or younger and would benefit from ongoing, one-on-one education and support for an overweight or obesity diagnosis, ask your clinician for a Pediatric Wellness Program referral or call 360-882-2778 for an appointment. This program helps kids and adolescents increase their self-esteem, improve their quality of life, feel good about their bodies, and prevent future health problems. By addressing excessive weight gain early, families can develop habits that support a lifetime of health.

Dr. Valerie Weiss leads the Pediatric Wellness Program at Vancouver Clinic. Using nutrition education, behavioral therapy, physical activity, and optional weight-loss medications prescribed to improve health, this wellness program helps patients prevent or reverse obesity and its complications.