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Summer Nutrition and Fitness
Think of summer: all the fresh fruits and vegetables available for our children combined with the opportunity to play outdoors during the long days and evenings. But although we may think that summer is a healthier time for children, a recent study of kids ages 5 to 7 showed just the opposite—their body mass index increased two to three times as fast during the summer as during the school year. Children who were already overweight were most likely to gain too much weight in the summer. In addition, those who were underweight showed less healthy weight gain during the summer.

Why isn't summer as healthy as we think for children?
Children who stay home during the summer are more likely to spend long hours unsupervised, watching television or playing video games, and snacking. Studies have shown that the more time children spend watching TV, the more likely they are to become overweight. The heavy advertising of high-calorie snack food on TV encourages children to want these foods. In addition, when children snack while watching TV, they aren't when their stomachs are full, and they tend to overeat. Finally, children often spend time watching TV or playing video games instead of engaging in physical activity, so they're not burning the calories that they're consuming.

Children who go to summer camp often get a healthy amount of physical activity during the day. However, camp food is often high-calorie, and high in starch, sugar and fat, since camps tend to avoid meats and milk products that could spoil or vegetables that could wilt in the heat.

How can we help our children be healthier in the summer?
Try to make your children's summer have the best aspects of the school year and the summertime in terms of nutrition and physical activity:
  • Make sure your child has structured activities each day. Don't let your child lie around watching TV and eating junk food. Build each day around an interesting activity: attending camp or the local recreation center, going swimming or bike riding, playing in the park, visiting the museum or zoo. Take the opportunity to do healthy activities together.
  • Give your child healthy meals and snacks. Provide three healthy meals and two healthy snacks daily, and don't let your child graze all day. Keep junk food out of the house, and take advantage of the fresh snacks available such as fruit slices, and raw vegetables with low-fat yogurt or hummus dip.
  • Make sure your child gets physical activity. Aim for at least one hour of physical activity every day. If it's too hot at midday, take your child outdoors early in the morning or in the evening. Also try water sports and playing at indoor, air-conditioned recreation centers.
  • Limit television to no more than two hours per day. This is crucial to staying healthy. Keep the TV out of your child's bedroom. Encourage public television shows, which have fewer commercials for junk food. And don't allow your child to eat in front of the TV.
  • When your child is thirsty, give her water or milk. Remember, during the summer, your child will be thirstier and will need to drink more. Stick to water and milk when possible. If you give your child juice, give 100 percent fruit juice and limit it to one cup per day. Try to avoid giving your child soda and sugary fruit drinks, since these are empty calories.

Help your child get ready for the next school year by staying healthy and fit during the summer.

Karen Sokal-Gutierrez M.D., M.P.H. Pediatrician