• A study of 18,000 kindergartners over two years of age saw obesity increase from 8.9 percent to 11.5 percent during that time. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
The summer holidays have been known to increase childhood obesity levels, but parents can turn this around by taking a few simple measures.
By
Megan Blandford

23 Jan 2017 - 8:30 AM  UPDATED 23 Jan 2017 - 8:30 AM

Director-general of the World Health Organisation, Dr Margaret Chan, has described the obesity epidemic as “a slow-motion disaster”.

And it turns out that this problem speeds up during summer holidays. Research shows that obesity in children increases during the holidays.

The study involved more than 18,000 kindergartners over two years of age, and saw obesity increase from 8.9 percent to 11.5 percent of the children in that time. Interestingly, this weight increase only happened during the summer holidays and not at all during term time.

While the research is from the United States, this summer health outlook is true for children in many cultural groups both within Australia and other developed nations, too. However, while holidays increase obesity across the board, the rate at which this happens is far from equal.

“It’s almost impossible to reverse it [obesity], and even when people do reverse their health as an adult the damage may already be done in terms of cardiovascular health and diabetes risk.”

The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) reports that 36 per cent of children who underwent an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health check were overweight or obese, compared with 21 per cent of children who completed the Healthy Kids Queensland Survey of more than 3,600 children.

This sets up a lifetime problem. “If you’re an obese child you’re at a disadvantage,” says Dr Clare Ballingall, Chair of the RACGP.

“It’s almost impossible to reverse it, and even when people do reverse their health as an adult the damage may already be done in terms of cardiovascular health and diabetes risk.”

There are three big factors at play when it comes to unhealthy summer holidays.

Food slides downhill

We all know our routines change during school holidays, but we might not give much thought to how that impacts what our kids are eating.

“During school terms, kids usually have quite regimented times for eating, whereas when you’re out of your routine the pantry is open more often,” says Kate Di Prima, Accredited Practising Dietitian and Spokesperson for the Dieticians Association of Australia.

Children might also have greater freedom over their food choices than they would when their lunchbox is being packed.

“Older kids tend to have more independence during the holidays,” says Di Prima. “They might get money and go for a walk with their mates and choose whatever foods they want, and they might gravitate towards highly refined sugars and fatty foods.”

Di Prima adds that it’s not just weight at play here: it’s gut health, bowel regularity, energy levels, mental health – in short, a relatively long period of eating unhealthy foods affects a child’s whole body.

Late nights become the norm during holidays, and this can draw out to become a contributing piece of the health puzzle.

“Some children are off for eight weeks, which is a long time to be lacking in nourishment,” she says. “The whole body begins to labour if it hasn’t been fed properly.”

Di Prima suggests counteracting this by offering healthier options so the kids aren’t tempted by junk food at home, and cooking with your kids to educate them in preparing healthy food.

Sleep habits are different

Late nights become the norm during holidays, and this can draw out to become a contributing piece of the health puzzle.

“There are some studies that suggest shorter amounts of sleep are linked to increased BMI and increased obesity rates,” says Ballingall of research that shows shorter sleep durations are associated with body mass index in children with early onset obesity.

Researchers suggest sticking fairly closely to school-time sleep schedules.

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Exercise habits ease off

Recent studies have shown that fitness improvements made during the school year are often lost during the summer break.This is, in part, a generational shift. “What happened in my summer holidays (being active all summer) couldn’t be more different to what happens in most children’s summer holidays now,” says Ballingall.

“A lot of children are spending more time with screen entertainment, whether that’s TV, iPads, laptops or gaming. That’s become the cultural norm now, which I think is a huge issue.”

“Our whole culture has changed when it comes to food and exercise.”

For parents, the best thing to do is model good exercise and health behaviours. Ballingall says, “Good health behaviours set in childhood create habits that last until adulthood.”

 

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