Rethinking Public School ‘Fat Letters’ for Students

Against some doctors' recommendations, the state may soon cease notifying the parents of extremely overweight children

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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.”

13 comments
LauraRothwell
LauraRothwell

the report says in the four years since the program has been implemented in Arkansas, there is no indication of negative consequences." Last I checked if you have an eating disorder you don't go around admitting to it?!  So the state now whats to tell me how to feed my children by their standards of healthy? So if we are a vegan family I am going to guess you would want us to eat meat? Or how about this one, I am on disability and my family gets what we can afford for food, if you want families to eat better make the food available to all income levels. To someone on the poverty level Ramen Noodles are horrible for you... but they are cheap! The day I get that letter I will send it right back with a big fat non of your business, as long as my children are healthy happy nurtured and in a good enviornment I am not going to worry about what any one else thinks. OMG my daughter is their perfect size for her height she is actually a little slim and she is worrying about her weight now?? This is what we want for our children? I am not one to post on these subjects but this is a family concern not a state or federal one. 


SarahConfran
SarahConfran

muscle is not heavier than fat (1lb of fat=1lb of muscle) it is LESS DENSE. 

MaxWright1
MaxWright1

This is so stupid. first of all, do they think parents are so self absorbed that they have no idea if their child is overweight?

Second, the BMI is flawed. According to those charts most athletes, including boxers, are overweight. Not because they have a lot of fat, but because they have a lot of muscle.

This is just another step on the path to the government controlling what you eat, because hey, all the bad eating habits are driving up our collective health care costs. If people would eat right, health care wouldn't be so expensive. And since you don't have a right to run up my health care bills, we need a law that prevents you from eating more than 2000 calories a day.

See how that works?

Whatever happened to freedom? So what if someone is fat? Isn't that their problem? Maybe the schools should spend more time trying to figure out why they lag so far behind schools in other countries and less time worrying about people's health care.

hayleysarg
hayleysarg

It's unlikely that young children will be outliers on a BMI chart unless they're very underweight (I think we see this from Asian and Eastern European children, I don't remember the study though). I think parents need to be more pro-active and aware to assist their children in starting their lives off right. Good habits start young. I think it's a good idea though it has a large potential to backfire. 

Willard
Willard

Disagree. There is no question that BMI is just one tool for determining overall health, and no one in support of these letters is saying it's a be-all-and-end-all. If these letters get a parent thinking "is my kid healthy or overweight," that is a good thing. My daughter would probably show up as overweight. Do I think she is? No. She's muscular. So I take the letter and fold it up and move on. But I appreciate the information, and the fact that for an overall population, reducing the number of people that fall into the obese and overweight categories is a positive step. 

We have both a massive body image issue and a massive obesity problem in this country. But saying let's not discuss it in a thoughtful way will only make things worse. 

forgottenlord
forgottenlord

There's healthy, there's definitely obese, but the problem lies in a massive grey area where the person is technically overweight, but not at a level that can really be described as dangerous.  In that range, eating disorders are just as dangerous as them possibly continuing to be overweight and BMI remains flawed.  It's not promoting discussion in that region, it's passing judgment - of the parents, of the children and of the lifestyles both lead.  And I need only look at my wife to know that there is a massive disconnect between "health" and "weight" conscious and these "fat" letters are far more likely to promote the latter rather than the former.

MaxWright1
MaxWright1

@hayleysarg I think parents shouldn't be allowed to have kids unless they can prove that they are responsible, financially stable, and intellectually capable of raising a child.

And, once again, we make the mistake of thinking of adolecents when people say "kids." When, in fact, most of these studies on "kids" are done on people that are under 18. Many 16 and 17 year old males will have a high BMI because they have a lot of muscle, not because they are fat. This isn't all abouty 8 and 9 year olds. The ame thing is true when it comes to guns.

we don't need big brother telling us about our weight. Here's an even better idea.... teach BMI, exercise, and healthy living in school! Then students can decide for themselves if they have a weight problem! Oh wait, we can't do that because we've been cutting sports programs, PE, and and other "non-essential" classes, like Health.

MaxWright1
MaxWright1

@Willard I'm all for discussing in a positive way. I'm not in support of "one-size-fits-all solutions."

 If schools want to be involved with the student's heath issues, they need to do a better job than just generating a form letter than uses information based on averages and liklihoods and tendencies. Why not do an actual health screen on each student and send those results to the parents?

Too expensive?

 Than quit worrying about it. Sending out "fat letters" isn't doing anyone any favors. Parents are either going to ignore it (as you do) or over react to it, causing distress for their child.

 As another person pointed out, there is a lot of grey area in the BMI. As long as a person is healthy overall, and their BMI is within a reasonable range, than it doesn't matter.

 Parents and students are better at making these decisions than schools are. and there is plenty of information available for anyone who wants to learn about it.

irees
irees

@MaxWright1So, you're one of those that expect others, like the school, to do the parenting for you. Healthy living needs to start from home. Your first statement shows that you seem to think you live in some idealized world where all parents are responsible adults. Unfortunately, that's not the case. I even laugh at the "financially stable" part. This isn't a case of "big brother" interfering with our lives. It's not mandating parents to do their job and promote a healthy lifestyle to their kids. Parents should be doing that anyway. Students ARE taught about health, and I remember doing plenty of exercising even in PE. The point is that we need to have parents enforcing healthy lifestyles and serving as role models to their kids.

irees
irees

@MaxWright1 You're solution of "quit worrying about it" is exactly why the obesity rate continues to increase today. Although the BMI is flawed, I think schools have the right idea. It's up to the parent on how to react about it, but it's better than nothing. I'd rather be reminded or be made aware of the weather, made by calculated predictions of meteorologists than be clueless about the weather. Are weather reports 100% right all the time? No, but it's something. Being told that your child may be overweight is not a measure of how well your parenting skills are. It just means that there needs to be changes on the daily routine.

irees
irees

 @LauraRothwell And before any of you jump on me, by "better", I mean in better health, being better in school, etc. I feel as if any of you could be insulted yet again.

irees
irees

 @LauraRothwell Sorry, but LOL at the yearly physical. Perhaps I should mention that I'm only 21, so high school and even teenage years are fresh in my mind. Unless you did sports, a yearly physical was never necessary in school. Just because a child is "not in danger" doesn't mean the parent has to wait for the child TO BE in danger to take healthy actions. It sounds to me as if you're saying that as long as my child is not in a life-threatening situation, just let them go towards a lifestyle that will eventually lead them to that path. I understand what you are saying about children's insecurity, especially teenagers, but I really think we need to stop coddling children. I'm pretty sure those who don't do well in their classes know of it, but still, we have teachers giving out grades and measuring our children's capabilities, skills, "intelligence" (That's another debate, so I won't continue.) Are you worried as well that children's feelings would be hurt because of bad grades? Tough luck. Study. Same with being over weight. The key is that you can do something about it. I don't believe these letters are a cause for fat shaming. The reason why everyone is so uptight about this is that everyone is viewing that fat=insulting me and my children. No, it just means you have a work-in-progress. If we keep sheltering our children (and parenting skills) from these kind of information--not insults--what exactly are we doing for our children? It's exactly this kind of parenting that spoils the new generation into doing whatever they want, like sitting in front of the tv, and eating whatever they want. Parents these days are quick to be insulted and insists on coddling children, making their children not ready for any bit of criticism because they were raised to be told that they're perfect the way they are. Reality will hit in the real world when life shows that these kids have to take criticism (but not to heart) and work to be better.

LauraRothwell
LauraRothwell

@irees @MaxWright1 When you take your child to their yearly physical this is all discussed with the parent, especially if the child is under or over weight by BMI standards. But your child's Dr. will also do blood tests and blood pressure to ensure the health of you child is not in danger. A school is for teaching children not to remind them that they aren't perfect. Most children who will get these letters are probably 14-17 and they are going to open that letter before they give it to mom or dad. A teenage is well aware of her or his body issues they don't need the school to pick on them about it as well. By the time a child enters high school I guarantee if she or he has been overweight she or he has tried to diet at least once. Let parents "parent" if the Dr. says to get on point with your childs health then do it, but leave it out of the schools there are enough daily pressures as it is.