For most students (and teachers), summer is the most highly anticipated season of the year. Just the word “summer” brings to mind images of ice cream trucks, boogie boards, backyard barbecues, and catching fireflies. It means freedom from 8-hour school days, tests, and most importantly - homework. But, at the risk of sounding like a Debbie Downer, it’s also noteworthy to discuss the pitfalls that can accompany this otherwise blissful time. One of the most frequently cited examples is that this period out of school can be detrimental for learning and academic growth - a phenomenon termed “the summer achievement slide” (1). This problem is particularly salient for children from families with a lower socioeconomic status (SES), contributing to the disparity between students of high and low SES that can have a long-lasting impact on variables like whether or not a student earns a high school degree and/or attends college (2). However, it is not only academics that can suffer during summer months; evidence suggests that for some, nutrition quality and exercise might also be neglected.
A recent PBS article noted that of the 21 million children who receive free or reduced-cost lunches throughout the normal school year, only 3.5 million children eat meals during the summer provided by the USDA – leaving a gap of more than 16 million children who may thus have an increased likelihood of receiving poor nutrition during these three months (3). This is consistent with results from a nationally representative study, which found that children with school breakfast programs available to them report better diet quality during the school year than when school is out (4)*.
Unfortunately, poor nutrition isn’t the only health problem that can emerge during summer vacation. According to a recent systematic review conducted by the Centers for the Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), students gain weight at a faster rate during the summer than the school year (5) - an effect that is especially pronounced among African American, Hispanic, and overweight children and adolescents. The authors of this study propose that like the disparity in learning mentioned above, accelerated weight gain during the summer may be related to low SES. Children and adolescents from low SES backgrounds may be less likely to attend summer camps, for example, which provide opportunities for physical activity that may attenuate excess weight gain.
Additionally, a 2013 study of 30 healthy children found that while no changes in diet were observed, sedentary activity levels increased while light and moderate physical activity levels declined during the summer months – challenging the conventional notion that summer is a time characterized by more time spent playing outside (6). Rather, these researchers suggest that these changes in activity may be due to greater screen time during the summer (i.e., time spent watching television, playing video games, or on the computer).
Fortunately, the first step in addressing any problem is usually acknowledging that there is one. If we know many children are going without the proper nutrition during the summer months, we can begin to take action and determine how we, as a society or community, can better meet this need. Further, by simply being aware that increased vacation time can turn into increased screen time, we can be proactive and plan activities that will keep both our kids and ourselves in shape. Below are some tips on how to make this summer a happy and healthy one for your whole family.
Tips to for Parents to Help Keep Kids Healthy during the Summer Months:
1. If finances make it difficult to ensure your child has access to nutritious foods during the summer, try finding the nearest Summer Food Service Program Site by calling the National Hunger Hotline at 1-866-3-HUNGRY or 1-877-8-HAMBRE.
2. Try incorporating some of the delicious and nutritious foods that are in season during the summer, including peaches, watermelon, corn, basil, and tomatoes. Going to a U-pick farm is a great way to get fresh produce, teach kids about agriculture, and also get some exercise.
3. Without the structure of gym classes or sports teams normally organized during the school year, parents might have to get a little more creative than usual to make sure that their children and teenagers don’t end up spending the 8-12 weeks of vacation in front of the TV. Some ways to get up and moving during the summer include:
a. Going to a nearby pool or the beach
b. Taking walks
c. Limiting time spent on TV or other electronics
d. Playing tennis
e. Playing basketball
f. Going fishing
g. Take a family camping trip
h. Going for a bike ride
*This is not seen among children without SBP, excluding to some extent the possibility that the decreased diet quality among children with access to SBPs is due to other seasonal variations in diet, such as the cost of food.
1. Cooper, H (1996). The effects of summer vacation on achievement test scores: A narrative and meta-analytic review. Review of Educational Research 66(3): 227-268.
2. Alexander, KL, Entwisle, DR, Olson, LS (2007). Lasting consequences of the summer learning gap. American Sociological Review 72(2): 167-180.
3. Kane, J (2014, July 16). Why summer is the hungriest season for some U.S. kids. PBS NewsHour. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/hungriest-season-u-s-kids/
4. Bhattacharya, J, Currie, J, Haider, S.J. (2004). Evaluating the impact of school nutrition programs. Electronic Publications from the Food Assistance & Nutrition Research Program.
5. Franckle R, Adler R, Davison K (2014). Accelerated weight gain among children during summer versus school year and related racial/ethnic disparities: A systematic review. Preventing Chronic Disease 11:130355.
6. McCue M, Marlatt K, Sirard J, Dengel D (2013). Examination of changes in youth diet and physical activity over the summer vacation period. The Internet Journal of Allied Health Sciences and Practice 11:1.
Appreciation is extended to Ms. Susan Murray for drafting this post.
Dr. Nicole Avena is a research neuroscientist/psychologist and expert in the fields of nutrition, diet and addiction. She has published over 60 scholarly journal articles, as well as several book chapters on topics related to food, addiction, obesity and eating disorders. She recently edited the book, Animal Models of Eating Disorders (Springer/Humana Press, 2013), and she has a book Why Diets Fail (Ten Speed/Crown) that was released January 1, 2014. Her research achievements have been honored by awards from several groups including the New York Academy of Sciences, the American Psychological Association, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and her research has been funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Eating Disorders Association. She has appeared on several television programs, including Good Day NY and The Couch.