Children Add Weight When School Is Out
March 2, 2007 -- This week, researchers from the Ohio State University and Indiana University released a study indicating that children are more likely to gain weight during the summer months as opposed to during the school year. The research indicates that influences other than school meal programs could be responsible for increases in childhood overweight.
The study, to be published in the American Journal of Public Health, sought to determine which contributed more to childhood overweight, school or non-school environments. Researchers looked at the body mass index (BMI) of 5380 children in 310 schools during kindergarten, summer vacation, and first grade. The results showed that the children’s BMI increased more rapidly and with more variability during the summer months, as opposed to when the students were in school. This was especially noticeable in 3 “at-risk” groups: African-American children, Hispanic children, and children who were already overweight at the beginning of the school year.
Are school meals a contributing factor to childhood obesity? According to the research authors, “… it appears that other factors are more to blame. Our results showed that most children – and especially children at high risk of obesity – were more vulnerable to excessive BMI gain when they were out of school during summer vacation than when they were in school during fall, winter, and spring … it appears that they (schools) are healthier than most children’s non-school environments. ” The researchers cite the lack of an unstructured environment as the reason why children are more likely to gain weight during the summer as opposed to during the school year. During the school day, students are assigned periods of time to exercise and opportunities to eat are limited.
The researchers note that there are significant policy implications based on these findings. They state that certain in-school interventions, such as removing soft drinks from vending machines may only have a limited effect on helping children maintain a healthy body weight. Instead, policy makers should look more closely at programs and policies that increase student exposure to school environments, such as those that boost participation in after-school activities or expand the school year. The researchers conclude that perhaps the most effective policies might be those that effect students outside of the school day.
While the study authors did not directly link the trend towards healthy school environments with the finding that students are less likely to gain weight during school months, during the school year the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program play an important role in teaching children about good nutrition while providing healthy meals. Schools are continuing to introduce more nutritious and tasty options that children enjoy. Some things schools are doing:
- Increasing offerings of fruits, vegetables, whole grain foods, and other more nutritious foods;
- Using alternative preparation techniques, such as replacing deep-fried foods with baked foods;
- Placing limits on the fat, sugar, and caloric content of foods sold through school foodservice and/or foods sold outside the cafeteria;
- Developing a greater focus on wellness issues including nutritional information, student education, and more “marketing” of healthier choices;
- Maintaining portion control;
- Improvements in food quality, menu range (especially ethnic foods), and service quality;
Districts are also developing and implementing local school wellness policies that are not only improving school meals, but also increasing nutrition education and physical activity.
The new research confirms that parents remain the key to addressing childhood overweight, and school nutrition professionals will continue to be an important ally and resource in promoting a healthy childhood weight.