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OpEd: The benefits of ‘fat letters’ outweigh the risks

Concerns over bullying, hurt feelings are real but that shouldn't stop education and awareness around childhood obesity.
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Nevil Hunt, August 21, 2013 11:07:34 AM

If you needed proof that politicians are unable to think beyond the next election, look to Massachusetts.

In that state, school nurses check the height and weight of all students and calculate the body mass index of each child. The parents of a child who may be obese receive a confidential letter suggesting they discuss the issue with their doctor.

Some might call that progressive thinking, but in Massachusetts there are lawmakers ready to prohibit any measurement of students or any letters home. Parents, after all, may well be voters, and giving them any bad news could cost a politician a job in the next election.

The legislators aren’t painting the picture that way of course. They’ve framed the proposed law as a question of the privacy of children.

In Canada there are a few student surveys that capture similar data, but the numbers may not be sent home to parents, which is a shame. A Toronto Public Health survey is intended only as a measure of overall health, and doesn’t release any individual data. They’ve promised their effort will not include the so-called ‘fat letters.’

The question at the heart of the matter is if sharing information about childhood obesity is a good idea or a bad one.

Well, sometimes you need to be cruel to be kind.

No parent likes to get bad news, but if your child needs any kind of health check-up, you should be grateful to anyone who points out a potential problem. Unlike politicians, parents should be able to think long-term, to when their child will be an adult.

Some people may think that a parent with an overweight child is already aware of the issue but that attitude also assumes the parent knows obesity can be turned around. There is so much pseudo-science and misinformation in the public realm that there are many parents who may believe their child’s weight is entirely dictated by their genes. These parents – and their children – could truly benefit from a discussion with the family doctor, who can set them straight on what they can – and what they can’t – control.

Opponents of school letters being sent to parents suggest families may over-react and single out one child for a strict diet. They say some kids with a high BMI may not really be obese, and critics also claim kids may be bullied or teased if their parents receive a letter.

Despite those potentially unhappy outcomes, it’s clear that letters sent home provide an opportunity for an overweight child to become a healthy adult, which clearly is a life-and-early-death issue far more important than bruised egos.

And if a child is later checked by their family doctor and found to be healthy – even with a high BMI – then who has lost out?

Banning these letters – these calls for action – could ensure another generation of kids grows up to be overweight.

Obesity in the U.S. has more than doubled in the last three decades. So in Massachusetts and elsewhere in North America, can we say the status quo is working?

It’s time we gave more weight to our children’s health instead of feeding parents’ egos.

Image credit: Thinkstock


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