A study published in the July issue of Journal for School Health debunks the theory that schools are failing to help kids fight fat. Instead, the report reveals that kids gain the most weight during the summer months. Sarah Jane Tribble explains this research and what can be done as part of ideastream’s Be Well series.
Jeanine Small and her daughter Amari are doing things a bit different this summer.
Jeanine recalls watching her 10-year-old daughter gain weight last year - particularly during the summer months. She also clearly remembers the day more recently that she decided to check Amari's medical chart.
"When you look at your child's chart and you see the words "obesity" you feel like you've failed your child as a parent. You’re supposed to protect them from these preventable things. You can protect them from these preventable things. You can’t protect them from breaking a leg or something that they acquired … That day was a hard day for me," Jeanine Small says.
We've heard a lot in the past year about schools serving our kids greasy and starchy foods and cutting gym classes. We’ve also heard how those moves and can contribute to health problems now or later in life. But according to recent research, we might be focusing on the wrong culprit.
Schools aren't really the problem, says Craig Johnston of Baylor Medical College in Texas. Johnston published a study this month in the Journal for School Health. And it's a big study. He followed more than 3,500 children for five years. Starting in kindergarten, Johnston and his team measured the Body Mass Index of each child at the beginning and end of the school year.
The bottom line is kids gain weight in the summer.
"If you just kind of graph the data out, what you see is over the course of nine months something really good going on. Overweight kids are probably getting closer to the normal weight range and then you see almost all of the benefits that take place over nine months erased by what happens during the summer months," Johnston says.
And that comes as no surprise to Brian Powell. He's a professor at the University of Indiana whose 2007 analysis of federal data on more than 5,000 children in 300 schools nationwide ALSO found that summer was a problem.
"If anything, schools are protecting children," Powell says.
In many cases, it's not surprising for kids to gain five to 10 pounds over the summer months, says Susie Akers, a pediatric dietician who works at Cleveland's MetroHealth System. That's because children aren't on a schedule and they tend to have access to more processed foods and sweet beverages.
"They go from a very structured breakfast, lunch, dinner, routine while they're in school to open door access to the kitchen," Akers says.
Johnston says he wants to be careful not to demonize parents with his latest study. In fact, he would like to do follow-up research that tracks kids and their families during the summer to see exactly what it happening. But Johnston does have his suspicions.
"For a lot of adults, we've tried to lose weight multiple times and we have probably for the most part failed," Johnston says.
But those failures shouldn't keep them from trying to help their kids, he said. After all, the weight can be more serious for kids. High cholesterol and blood pressure as well as diabetes can wreak havoc on young bodies. With that in mind, Johnston has a plea for parents:
"What we really want to do is to say I don't want you to have the same struggles that I have now, right? It can be different fo you. And if it's going to be different we really have to change the way we're living our lives," Johnston says.
Jeanine Small understands this. These days, Jeanine and Amari attend a weekly FitYouth program together at the Cleveland Clinic, where Jeanine works as a nurse. Together, they walk the seven flights of stairs to class each week and together they are learning about healthy foods and exercising daily.
"She's my shadow. She's my copycat. If she sees me doing something, she wants to see me do it. Now if she sees me working out, she wants to do it. Ma, Ma don't go without me… so she doesn’t want to be left out," Small says.
So, they go for daily walks. They also canceled cable at their house to keep themselves from being tempted to sit on the couch. And they shop for groceries - and cook together. As a result, they have both lost weight. And mother and daughter say they feel like they know each other a bit better.
I'm Sarah Jane Tribble, 90.3