As families dive into summer break in Canada, experts are warning that the combination of unhealthy eating, increased screen time and reduced outdoor activities can contribute to potential weight gain among kids during this time.
Childhood obesity in Canada has nearly tripled over the past 30 years due to genetics, an increasingly sedentary lifestyle and more accessibility to processed food, explained Dr. Mélanie Henderson, a pediatric endocrinologist at CHU Sainte-Justine in Montreal.
And the summertime can exasperate these problems, she warned.
“With respect to summertime, the fact that we break our routine makes it more difficult to adhere to healthy lifestyle patterns,” she said.
“There have been some studies that have demonstrated that children will have lesser healthy lifestyle habits in the summertime, will gain more weight during that period, and ultimately that will be more difficult to break that cycle. So absolutely, summertime can be a period of concern.”
A 2014 study out of Harvard School of Public Health looked at data from studies from more than 10,000 kids aged five to 12 in the United States, Canada and Japan between 2005 and 2013. Although this is not the most recent study to look at weight gain and children during the summer, it is one of the largest research projects that examines the topic.
The researchers found that school-aged children may gain weight at a faster rate during the summer compared with the school year.
“The studies reviewed suggested many potential mechanisms for accelerated summer weight gain. Such mechanisms included decreased physical activity, increased sedentary behaviours, increased access to unhealthy snacks, unstructured schedules and boredom, less self-monitoring, irregular sleep patterns and less access to healthier meals through school breakfast and lunch during the summer relative to the school year,” the Harvard School researchers stated.
However, they noted the reasons were, “purely speculative.”
'Big concern' for parents
Unhealthy habits such as increased screen time during the summer are a “big concern for parents,” according to Alyson Schafer, a family counsellor and parenting expert based in Toronto.
“We have technology in the palm of our hands — it’s very easy for kids to turn to their devices and squander their time and basically have the summer kind of run away with them,” she said.
And because kids may not make demands when using a tablet or phone, she acknowledged managing limits around devices can be challenging for parents, particularly during the summer when kids have more free time on their hands.
But when children prioritize virtual experiences over real-life interactions like building relationships with friends and family or riding a bike, she warned it can lead to anxiety, depression and other associated behaviours such as binge eating.
Children who have unhealthy lifestyles causing obesity have a greater risk of developing heart disease, high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes and breathing problems, explained Henderson.
“They have complications in terms of their mental health with higher levels of anxiety and depression,” she said. “And why that’s such a problem is that obesity and its complications track into adulthood. So it’s not just a problem that stays in childhood and goes away.”
Henderson added that the complications of childhood obesity can also be more aggressive in kids than in adults.
For example, when it comes to Type 2 diabetes, its impact on children is notably more severe compared to adults, she said.
Children experience greater treatment challenges, and the disease has been shown to progress more rapidly in kids than in adults creating more complications such as cardiovascular problems, kidney disease and nerve damage.
How to help kids stay healthy during summer break
Summer break in Canada typically falls in July and August, meaning there’s still time to plan fun and healthy activities for kids, Henderson said.
The initial step in addressing this issue is to ensure that children get an adequate amount of sleep, as these patterns can easily become disrupted without a consistent schedule. She emphasized that a lack of sufficient sleep is closely linked to excess body weight.
Another important step is to establish healthy eating environments.
“When we break our patterns, it can be difficult to adhere to healthy eating. So when we’re on trips, when we’re camping, sometimes we tend to turn to less healthy food choices,” Henderson said.
“In the summertime, we do have some nice local produce, fruits and vegetables that are available.”
Schafer recommends families get their kids involved in cooking and meal planning as this can be an educational time to teach them about nutrition.
“Kids actually tend to really enjoy cooking. If you’ve made it fun instead of a chore, they will step up and make it a wonderful social time in the kitchen where everyone’s chopping at a mushroom or learning how to use the skillet,” she said.
She emphasized the importance of viewing food in terms of nutrition and health rather than engaging in “body shaming.” For example, instead of telling kids to eat carrots because they have very little sugar, Schafer suggested reframing it by saying, “We eat carrots because they are good for our eyes.”
Another trick to foster healthy habits during the summer is planning ahead and creating a schedule, even if it’s loosely structured, she said.
“Obviously routine is one of the preventative factors in terms of keeping ourselves on the move. And so when we lose our routine, we really see ourselves going into patterns that we don’t necessarily like,” she said.
She recommended families designate specific time slots throughout the day for various activities such as engaging in sports, crafts, using technology, or cooking.
“It doesn’t have to cost any money, but at least you’ve got a block of time where you’re saying these are the types of activities in the afternoon where that might be reading or doing puzzles or have independent play,” she said.
But the key is to get children involved in the planning.
“Get the kids to be engaged in generating those lists of activities so that they see what they are,” Schafer said.
“Have them written on a piece of paper because otherwise they just walk around saying, ‘I’m bored,’ and when you’re bored, you pick up the iPad.”