Schools in nine states are keeping track of the weight of their students and sending updates to their parents as a sort of “BMI report card,” but a recent study examining Arkansas, the first state to implement the idea, has found the practice to have little effect, especially on older teenagers.
According to study author Kevin Gee, the letters sent home do make an attempt to cut back the increasing rate of obesity. However, he added that they were unlikely to have any effect on the adolescents they are meant to help.
“The typical 16-year-old’s reaction to getting a letter at home and having your parents tell you to eat right and exercise, would be, ‘Don’t nag me,’ ” said Dr. Gee, an assistant professor of education policy at the University of California, Davis.
Arkansas, which holds one of the highest child obesity rates in the country, implemented the program in 2003, including annual weigh-ins and letters home. The letters made each child’s family aware as to whether their body mass index (BMI), which is a calculation of height and weight, made them underweight, overweight, obese, or healthy.
Currently, 25 states across the country weigh their students in an effort to monitor issues with childhood obesity. Of those, 10 send notes home to family.
The letters have been greeted with mixed reactions. Nutritionists and some parent groups argue that such labeling only contributes to poor body image and eating disorders. A number of educators believe that such tracking should be left in the hands of health care providers, writes Jan Hoffman for The New York Times.
“There is so much stigma with being overweight, and children in adolescence are particularly sensitive to that,” said Mary T. Story, an expert on adolescent obesity at Duke University. “In some schools, there is no privacy screen when they’re being weighed, and the process is embarrassing for them.”
However, others, including Dominique G. Ruggieri, a faculty fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Public Health Initiatives, say the letters could be a wake-up call. She added that the effect of the letters greatly depends on their content and how they are delivered. While some districts send pertinent information along with the letter concerning BMI, other districts only offer parents a number on a piece of paper. Some districts mail the information to parents, while others that cannot afford the postage send the letters home with students.
Arkansas schools have worked to reinforce their message through additional efforts. Some districts have banned vending machines or placed snacks with limited calorie counts inside, while others have put a limit on the number of classroom parties that can take place each year.
Despite these efforts, the obesity rate in the state is the same as it was when the initiative was started. “It didn’t get worse,” said Martha M. Phillips, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, who added that obesity rates across the country have been on the rise for the last 30 years.