Fat Letters Do Nothing to Fight Obesity

By: Tracy Watson, North Andover Selectman,  – March 2013

watson_tracy0174This recent week has brought much media attention to my family. This attention has come due to the fact that my son Cameron received what has recently been dubbed a “fat letter”.

These letters are sent to the homes of children throughout the state of Massachusetts under a mandate set forth by the State Department of Public Health. These letters state height, weight and BMI percentile.

They then go on to label our children into categories. One of those categories is obese while at the other end of the spectrum it speaks to the child being in the anorexic category. These labels are based solely on the BMI measurement method. And therein lays the problem.

As far back as the 1960’s the BMI measurement system has come under fire when used for individual diagnosis. Nevertheless, due to its simplicity, it has come to be widely used for just this purpose despite its inappropriateness. For instance our own New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady would be deemed overweight using only the BMI measurement system. Arnold Schwarzenegger, at the height of his bodybuilding career, would have been deemed morbidly obese. You get the picture.

As a point of reference in 1998, the U.S. National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lowered the normal/overweight cut-off from BMI 27.8 to BMI 25.

This had the effect of redefining approximately 29 million Americans, previously healthy to overweight. The MA Department of Public Health has recently issued a report which states that 32% of all school aged children in the state are obese. I ask the question, would these same children be labeled obese if their measurements were taken in 1998?

I also question why these skewed statistics are being used to make sweeping changes within our schools. We are the state that banned bake sales after all. Our younger students can no longer enjoy a cupcake when a friend celebrates a birthday and forget about the fun filled holiday parties. School lunch portions have shrunk based on these skewed statistics as well. And as any parent of a high school athlete will tell you….those kids need calories.

To a degree I see this poorly designed test propping up a false narrative to increase fear about an epidemic of obesity among our children.

However I do not dispute or argue the fact that we are a “fast food” nation or that there may be an issue with weight in our country I do dispute and I do argue the method of labeling our children in this manner. Especially since these labels are put upon them due to the use of a flawed method of measurement.

I have no doubt that the Department of Public Health thought they were well intentioned when creating this mandate and I do believe they wanted to educate families about the health related issues associated with being overweight but is this the best we can do? Four times out of a child’s school career we measure them and send home a corresponding fat or skinny letter? The irony here is if another child called their classmate fat or obese they would be reprimanded for “bullying” but we’re going to the let grown-ups do it?

The honest truth is that a fat kid knows they are fat and a skinny kid knows they are skinny. So don’t their parents. A letter home stating the obvious does nothing to help the situation. And on the flip side a letter home stating something that is utterly untrue can cause great harm to a child at their most vulnerable ages.

I do think we should be talking about health and weight but we can and should find a better way to educate our kids about being healthy and eating healthy. For me I think sometimes the old ways are the best ways…..maybe we should bring back home economics! Teach the kids to cook with healthy foods. Keep them moving throughout their day. Give them more recess time and more physical education time.

I don’t have all the answers but I do know we can do better and I hope our State Legislature sees it this way too when House Bill 2024 comes up for a vote.