Parents of elementary school students receive a steady flow of letters throughout the year as teachers notify them of class projects, parties and special events. But parents in 19 states, including Arkansas, California, Massachusetts and Illinois, should be on the look out for letters on another, less friendly topic: their child’s weight.
In these states, students’ Body Mass Index (BMI) data is collected at school. Parents of the children whose BMI is above a healthy percentile receive notification in what students have dubbed “fat letters.”
Childhood obesity is a serious concern throughout the U.S., where over 30% of children and teens are overweight or obese and 5% are severely obese according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. But members of the state legislature in Massachusetts have started a crusade against the “fat letters,” introducing legislation to ban the collection of students’ BMI data, which the state’s department of health has been gathering since 2009.
Scientists have argued BMI is a faulty measure of obesity because it doesn’t take into account where fat is stored or muscle, which is heavier than fat. But many doctors agree it is an effective tool for determining whether or not a patient has a weight problem.
Parents and pediatricians have been going back-and-forth on the “fat letter” issue recently after an August report by the American Academy of Pediatrics urged parents to put their pride aside and welcome the screenings and letters, which they say will help parents and their children adopt healthier lifestyles.
“BMI screening letters are an additional awareness tool to promote conversations about healthy eating habits, exercise, and weight in the safety and conﬁdential environment of the child’s home,” read the report.
Though opponents of the letters argue they can be damaging to children’s self-esteem and lead to eating disorders, which are common among obese children and teens, the report says in the four years since the program has been implemented in Arkansas, there is no indication of negative consequences.
Those who are not in favor of the letters still insist this is just another instance of the government sticking it’s nose where it doesn’t belong.
“It goes to a larger problem, the Department of Public Health is losing sight of what its focus is and expanding too many areas,” Massachusetts Rep. Jim Lyons, whose anti-”fat letters” legislation was scheduled for a hearing on Tuesday, told Patch. “I dont think it [a child's BMI] is something that parents need to be told through a school department.”