An F for Fat

An A in Math, a B in History and an F in Body Mass Index: So may read kids' report cards someday. A group of researchers tackling the growing problem of childhood obesity recently tested the effectiveness of a "health report card."

Families in a Massachusetts school system randomly received a personalized report of their child's body mass index (calculated using height and weight measurements) along with fitness and nutrition tips. Parents who received the report card were more aware of their child's weight and more likely to want to take action if their child was overweight.

But those parents weren't more likely to make dietary changes or encourage exercise. "Expecting a piece of paper to make a huge impact is unrealistic," says Virginia Chomitz, a senior scientist at the Institute for Community Health in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and an author of the study. She says raising awareness is the first step. The Centers for Disease Control estimates at least 15 percent of American children are overweight, a number that has doubled since the 1970s.

Jessica Shalom, a middle-school gym teacher in New York City, doubts a report card would help much. "The approach is too simplistic," she says. "And it seems a little harsh, particularly without follow-up information and resources."

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Chomitz adds that health report cards could be stigmatizing, making parents and kids shoulder too much of the blame. "The obesity epidemic is a social-ecological problem," she says. "A parent can only make so many food choices—when schools serve unhealthy food and gym classes are being cut." But Chomitz says parents can take two steps: limit the time spent lounging in front of the television and cut out sugary soda.

Any intervention may be worthwhile considering the risks associated with childhood obesity—a greater chance of developing Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma and depression.

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