Many states require schools to send out BMI report cards. But research says they may not be helpful—and may even hurt kids in the long run.
Does your child have her height and weight taken at school? Half of U.S. states now have laws requiring schools to do BMI screenings, and 11 of those states report the findings back to parents. Some say these BMI "report cards" are a helpful public health tool to bring awareness to parents and spur positive changes. But there's not a lot of evidence that's actually happening. In fact, a new study says most parents don't actually believe the information is accurate. There are also concerns that these report cards may ultimately hurt kids.
BMI stands for body mass index. The measurement uses height and weight to place children and adults into categories like "underweight", "healthy weight", "overweight", and "obese".
Twenty years ago, childhood obesity was labeled an "epidemic" by the U.S. government. Today, 17 percent of children and adolescents—more than 12 million—are obese, according to the CDC. Kids who are obese have a 70 percent greater chance of being obese as adults, which can means higher risk for chronic disease such as diabetes and heart disease.
But it's not clear whether these BMI report cards are actually improving obesity rates or helping students. In a review of studies last year, researchers from UC Berkeley School of Public Health concluded that as of now, BMI report cards don't positively impact students' weights. They also pointed out that BMI report cards may shame and stigmatize children, leading to teasing or even disordered eating.
Other drawbacks are that the reports are hard for parents to understand, that they don't use clear language to describe BMI, and that they don't provide actionable steps that parents can take, noted the researchers. They also added that many parents find the term "obese" to be offensive, which may mean they're less likely to take positive steps after seeing that label.
There's evidence that parents may not actually take much stock in the report cards either. According to a recent study published in the journal Health Promotion Practice, nearly 53 percent of parents surveyed said they didn't think the BMI report card accurately reflected their child's health.
About one third of parents said the BMI report led them to think about the family's health habits. But only about 13 percent of parents with kids in the "at risk" or "overweight" categories said they had made changes to their child's diet or exercise habits as a result.
When those same parents were asked their opinion of their child's weight status, more than 65 percent didn't select the same category for their child as the BMI charts. More than a third of parents whose children fell into the overweight or obese categories identified them as "normal weight".
A majority of parents surveyed (more than 75 percent) believe that schools should be involved in educating kids and parents about healthy lifestyles. But if schools are going to send home BMI report cards, they should also give parents the resources to act on the information they receive, say the researchers—such as information on steps to take or programs for parents and students.
Do YOU think schools should send home BMI report cards?
Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author of The Snacktivist's Handbook: How to Change the Junk Food Snack Culture at School, in Sports, and at Camp—and Raise Healthier Snackers at Home. She also collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.