An F for Fat

Should kids get marks for personal health? Tackling the growing problem of childhood obesity.

By Carlin Flora, published on November 1, 2003 - last reviewed on April 11, 2007

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."

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.