Childhood Obesity: Do Children Need "Weight Report Cards"?

Tuesday, September 26, 2006 - 12:33pm

By Donna Feldman, MS, RD

It's a safe bet that most adults dread being weighed at the doctor's office. Since many people are overweight, getting weighed means being embarrassed or defensive, or listening to a lecture from the doctor. So it's not surprising that a proposal for children to be weighed at school and receive a Weight Report Card was met with loud protestations from parents. What parent wants their child to undergo that kind of embarrassment, not to mention teasing from other children?

National statistics show that 17% of children are overweight; some of them are even obese. And the percentage keeps growing. In Arkansas, the rate was already over 20% when Governor Huckabee decided to address the childhood obesity problem. Inspired by his own personal health transformation after losing more than 100 pounds, he proposed a statewide system of yearly weight report cards for school children.

Parental worries over the "Weight Report Card"

The idea initially met with resistance from parents and health experts. They worried that children's self esteem would be damaged if they were labeled "fat." This proposal was seen as more meddling by schools into family life. Parents are responsible for their children's health care, not school administrators, people argued. Similar alarms were raised in other states that proposed weight report cards, such as New York.

Research on Weight Report Cards Program was promising

Meanwhile, a pilot program in Boston in 2001-02, published in Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, showed promising, if unspectacular, results. Parents in the study who received the weight reports along with advice on weight management, said that they intended to make recommended changes to help their children lose weight. Whether they actually made any changes, and whether the children lost any weight, is unknown. But parents liked the personalized information, and the concept looked promising. There were no reports of damaged self-esteem.

The Arkansas Initiative

Despite the protests, Arkansas implemented the program in 2003. Once a year, students are weighed and measured. Body Mass Index (BMI), using height and weight, is computed for each child and compared to statistics from the CDC on weight ranges for children. The confidential report is sent to parents. The child's BMI is presented as a point on a bar graph, ranging from underweight, to healthy weight, to at-risk, to overweight. If the child is at-risk or overweight, helpful lifestyle changes are listed.

The weight report cards are just one part of a larger plan to involve Arkansas schools in encouraging healthy lifestyle choices in the community. School districts are mandated to create nutrition and physical activity advisory committees, involving parents, school personnel and community leaders. A recent progress report mentioned such changes as construction of walking trails on campus, removal of deep fat fryers from cafeterias, increase in fresh fruit on the menus, substitution of low fat milk and creation of a walking club.

Does the Weight Card Report program work?

Arkansas officials are very encouraged that the data shows the percentage of overweight children has held steady since the program began (instead of increasing as expected). They interpret the statistics to mean that the initiative is working, if slowly. And no reports of angry parents or children with damaged self-esteem have surfaced. Those fears appear to have been unfounded.

Weight report cards are not harmful. They may inspire significant numbers of parents to finally make lifestyle changes that promote weight control. The confidential reporting system, coupled with healthy lifestyle changes at the schools, and helpful advice to parents keeps the responsibility for child health with parents, but gives them information and advice they need to address the very serious problem of childhood obesity. Other states may look to Arkansas's example. Weight report cards may be coming to a school near you.