‘Fat Report Cards’ Are Totally Ineffective at Combating Obesity

A new study shows the controversial letters to parents have virtually no effect on kids’ health.
(Photo: Michael Gottschalk/Getty Images)
Aug 10, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Jennifer Swann is TakePart’s culture and lifestyle reporter.

They’re called body report cards, BMI letters, or fat letters. Whatever the name, the notes that some school districts send home to parents about their kids’ weight have struck fear and anxiety into the hearts and stomachs of schoolkids from the moment they were first introduced in Arkansas in 2003.

In the years since, during which nine more states have adopted the reporting requirement, body report cards have become one of the most polarizing tactics aimed at curbing childhood obesity rates. Proponents say the practice sends a clear message to parents whose kids are overweight; opponents have long argued that it may negatively affect kids’ body image and may lead to eating disorders.

A new study showing that BMI letters do almost nothing to combat adolescent obesity could sway states to rethink the approach. Kevin Gee, a professor in the school of education at the University of California, Davis, compared one group of Arkansas 11th and 12th graders who had received the weight screenings and report cards with another group who had not and found virtually no change in health outcomes between the two groups.

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The latter group was evaluated after 2007, when Arkansas tweaked the policy to exempt high school juniors and seniors from the body report cards owing to complaints from parents who found the reports invasive. The school reports use body mass index, or the ratio of weight to height, to assess whether a child is obese, but some scientists argue that the metric doesn’t accurately assess body fat or fat distribution, both of which, they say, are more nuanced indicators of health risks.

BMI reporting in public schools has come under fire not just from students and parents but also from health groups including the Academy for Eating Disorders and the Eating Disorders Coalition. Their primary concern is that telling parents and children what they likely already know without any context or advice for treatment needlessly puts kids at risk for bullying and shaming and could have damaging effects on their mental health.

A 2011 study published in Eating Disorders Review found that among students who received BMI reports in Arkansas during 2007, 27 percent started dieting after learning their results, and 5 percent began taking diet pills, which are ineffective and can be dangerous. Eleven percent of students said they were embarrassed by the results of their BMI report.

Although obesity rates for kids ages six to 11 almost tripled between 1980 and 2012 and grew even faster for adolescents, the last decade has seen some promise in the addressing of the epidemic among younger children: Rates for kids ages two to five declined 43 percent, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported. Obesity puts kids at a much higher risk for diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and some forms of cancer later in life.

While the BMI reports assess obesity, they fail to address the complex causes of it, especially in low-income and minority families. Low-income kids, overall, are more likely to be dangerously overweight than those in the highest income brackets, and Latino and African American kids are generally more likely to experience obesity than whites, according to the CDC. Arkansas consistently ranks among the most obese states in the nation; it shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that it’s also one of the poorest.