‘Fat Letters’ Sent to Parents No Laughing Matter

These outraged parents should really think about what obesity means for their children.

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Child photo via Shutterstock

Some parents in North Andover are outraged that their kids’ schools recently sent home so-called “fat letters” alerting them that their children were overweight or obese. The letters, issued by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH) after children were weighed and measured at school, were sent to the parents of kids who rated outside the normal range on the Body Mass Index (BMI) scale. The BMI gives a reading of a person’s weight status based on height and weight.

Many claim that the BMI is often inaccurate because it doesn’t differentiate between muscle mass and fat, and as a result, it can overestimate a person’s obesity level. However, alternative tests are prohibitively expensive and more complex, so pediatricians routinely use the BMI as a helpful screen for possible weight issues.

I’ve heard countless parents laugh off their kids’ high ratings on the BMI scale, which pediatricians now give at annual check-ups. They say things like “he’s just pleasantly plump” or “she has big bones.” So often those parents seem in denial about the child standing in plain view. Perhaps we’re so used to chubby kids that we hardly notice them anymore.

The sad truth is that 35 percent of kids in this country are, in fact, overweight or obese, a number that has more than tripled in the past 30 years. And according to the Optimum Weight for Life program at Boston Children’s Hospital, “Childhood obesity causes type 2 diabetes, sleep apnea, fatty liver, high blood pressure, and other serious complications.” 

And the worst of it is that kids who start life fat often stay that way. According to a recent study in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, bodies adapt to obesity and work hard to maintain it, thwarting future attempts at healthy lifestyle changes. So, every time you see an obese kid, you are more than likely also seeing a future obese adult.

This crisis in childhood obesity has led to the extraordinary public health measures like those taken in North Andover schools. In fact, the orchestration of the “fat letters” stems from the adoption of the “BMI initiative” by the DPH in 2009, which requires public schools to calculate student BMIs and send the results and guidance for next steps to the parents.

Children who received those letters, and especially their parents, should take the information seriously and pursue the next round of more detailed diagnostic tests to see if the BMI rating was accurate.

While some will continue to argue that government should stay out of family decisions, public health officials have decided the problem is too big to ignore—that parents can’t do this alone—and, based on the evidence, I’d say they’re right. Parents should thank them for the heads-up.

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  • Sam West

    Parents should properly care for their children and take steps to improve their health. Government, however, has no business telling people how to feed their kids. If they don’t starve them or poison them with strychnine leave the people alone!

    Also, why do government schools instead of teaching (and doing a horrible job at it) start giving out unwelcome health advice? Kids and their parents are not property of the state. They are individuals and their right to liberty stems from the founding principles of the United States.

    This article is another grim reminder that all government schools must be abolished.

    • Laurie

      The government gets involved because the schools are supposed to care about our children, not just treat them like brains without bodies. That’s why PE (as much as I hated it) has always been part of school. The government,meaning the public, will end up having to pay money down the road for the kids that grow into sick, obese, disabled adults. That’s why they are trying to catch it early. Fat kids are more likely to be fat grown ups which equals more taxpayer money spent and more insurance payouts.

  • fritz

    The funds are provided by both the CDC and Insurance companies. Families can OPT OUT. And EVERY child is required to receive a letter regardless of bmi (privately mailed to the parent).
    I also find it funny that the Andover Rep. is obese himself and the selectwoman is a smoker! Hardly authorities on public health issues.
    More important than the letters home, is the data that this study provides. Type 2 diabetes has doubled in the last decade and our children are indeed seeing a catastrophic spike in our obesity levels…

  • Tony

    BMI should never be used for the diagnosis of overweight condition on an individual, specially on people under 14. BMI formulation was developed for the study of group statistics.

    Besides body fat can be measured in less than 20 seconds via two hand paddles that shoot a low current and measure conductivity.

    Thre years ago I took all the listed body weights and heights for the 17 Celtics on the team roster and only 4 were in the BMI acceptable range. Shaq was well into the BMI obese range. Will some nutritionist or medical doctor explain to the common masses how individuals, who run 24 to 40 minutes at full speed for 82+ games per season, can be considered obese or overweight.