Junkfood Science: Parents can just say “No”

April 10, 2007

Parents can just say “No”

The posture and look of the school nurse captured in the photograph* says it all. No amount of assurances of sensitivity and claims from school officials that kids enjoy the experience, can change the humiliation a young person feels having his/her body examined in school and a note sent home to his/her parents.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported this weekend that parents are being sent obesity report cards from Pennsylvania schools, grading their children’s body mass indexes. These school grades have been mandated in about six states, patterned after the anti-childhood obesity program in Arkansas, and a pilot program across ten Pennsylvania schools has been in place since 2003. The article, “A touchy subject: obesity testing,” reported school officials as saying it was about health and teaching kids “to make better choices.” According to program administrators, parents are given information “intended to alert [them] of a present or looming weight problem.”

As we’ve seen, and this article illustrated, school officials have not proven to be sources for especially credible information or understanding about childhood obesity, growth and development, or children’s health. Instead, the information given families and children is typically little more than popular myths and the consequences have not been helpful or healthful.

News of the “success” of Arkansas’ comprehensive childhood obesity prevention initiatives has traveled far and wide, even to Australia, where the news recently reported that a politician is hoping to replicate former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee’s program there. News of the evidence for the program's "success" hasn't enjoyed the same travels. The Arkansas program failed to reduce overall childhood obesity levels after three years. And it most “failed” poor and minority children. It did, however, increase the problem of underweight among the school children as much as it reduced at risk for being overweight.

The Philadelphia Inquirer writer cleverly weaved into her article notes of what was actually happening inside and outside the schools — all of which toppled the claims of school officials and supported the concerns of experts who were quoted on the potential harm of this program. Beyond the flawed premise of using the BMI in children in the first place, the experts’ fears included the risks of accentuating body weight concerns and encouraging inappropriate dieting among the young girls.

Such concerns were clearly a reality. The article described the school nurse’s evaluations of the kids which included grilling them about their eating and exercise habits and “push[ing] fruits, vegetables and calorie-burning extracurriculars.” A teenage girl, 5-foot 1-inch tall and weighing 120 pounds, who was active in sports and ate a healthy diet, was told she was over the “at-risk line” and needed to watch her weight. The young woman told the reporter that most of the girls in the school were already on diets and she planned to try to lose a couple of pounds, too.

And despite claims of an administrator that “I can’t think of any complaints from parents at all,” the reporter wrote of several parents objecting to this program, upset about the discriminatory aspects of failing to appreciate varying sizes among “racial and ethnic groups,” worried about the girls at risk for anorexia and bulimia, and concerned about the labels being placed on kids. One parent of an athlete was reported saying “it infuriated” her and another parent dismissed it as “really silly” because she recognized her daughter goes into growth spurts and gets chubby before each spurt.

To her credit, the reporter carefully included a note that Arkansas had curtailed their BMI report card program this year because of parent complaints and that parents can opt not to have their children participate. As we learned, parents are increasingly realizing that they can just say, “No.”

* [Photo: Bonnie Weller/Inquirer Staff Photographer]

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