Published: June 24, 2008
Updated: June 25, 2008
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By Duke Medicine News and Communications
DURHAM, NC -- Talk of the lazy, hazy days summer doesn't sit well with Sarah Armstrong, MD, a pediatrician at Duke University Medical Center, whose chief concern is pediatric obesity. "Routines go hay wire, and with nothing to do after a few days in the pool, some kids head straight for the refrigerator or snack bar because they think they're hungry when they're actually just bored," she says.
Add in regular ice cream stops on a hot summer night, hot dogs at the ball park, and funnel cake at the fair, and you've got the recipe for a summer-long bad-eating binge.
That vicious cycle of poor eating habits leads to weight gain and, ultimately, if left unchecked, the potential for early onset of chronic diseases.
As kids kick back for summer, Dr. Armstrong wants to arm parents with knowledge about the nutritional obstacles that can derail their best efforts. Sweet treats are part of summer's fun, but only when eaten in moderation. Here, more of her advice on how to stay on track over the coming months:
Get Enough Sleep. Studies already show that late nights and sleeping in are known risk factors for weight gain. "When kids stay up late, they are more likely to watch TV and snack on dense, low-nutrient foods," she says. And, a shorter night's sleep limits the body's production of leptin, a hormone known to promote satiety. That means kids wake up hungrier, and are quicker to reach for high-carb, calorie rich foods.
It's okay for your child to stay up a little bit later during the shorter summer nights, but keep on hand late-night snacks rich in nutrients like creamy, nonfat yogurt, a handful of crunchy roasted nuts or fruit.
In the morning, encourage healthy breakfasts like fruit smoothies, high fiber cereal or even a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on whole wheat bread, even if it's close to lunch time. "Breakfast really is the most important meal of the day," she says.
Take a fast food vacation. Kids crave fast food but that doesn't mean you should park your family at the nearest McDonalds romper room every day to escape the heat. Trade french fries and big macs for picnics at the park or beach. Take a pass on the ball park hot dog and instead, load the cooler with healthy alternatives like turkey sandwiches or light salads. Whatever you choose, "incorporate protein in every meal," Armstrong says. "It releases insulin at a slower rate, and that keeps your blood sugars – and your energy level – constant throughout the day."
Check out the summer camp menu. Your child's summer camp may not follow the same adherence to nutrition that is being accepted by many public schools these days. Check ahead with the summer program where your child will be eating lunch to find out what types of meals and snacks are served. If you don't like what you find out, pack a healthy lunch including lean lunch meats, raw vegetables, or whole wheat crackers.
Limit the sweet stuff. Carnivals, fairs, vacations, beaches, they're magnets for candy-coated apples, snowy funnel cakes and slushies. "I would never tell a parent not to give their child cotton candy, but I do tell them to balance the bad with the good." Likewise, when you're hot and thirsty, keep sweetened fruit juices, teas and sodas to a minimum, and opt instead for thirst-quenching water. "It will make you feel full without the calories," she says.
Keep active! Sure it's hotter than heck, and few kids want to run around outdoors in the heat of the day. But find other ways to stay active. Encourage swim races at the pool and playing Manhunt after dusk. If all else fails, turn on the Wii in an air conditioned room.
Keep exercise a part of your vacation too. Biking, jogging, and signing up for active activities, rather than lazing at the pool or beach, will do everyone's body and brain a whole lot of good.