Head to Head: should schools evaluate students’ obesity?

Fat Letters

By Sam Arneson and Max Smith

In recent decades obesity has been a touchy subject for students, teachers, and parents in America. However, the fact remains that obesity is an ongoing struggle for many Americans, and we cannot continue sugarcoating the topic to protect the feelings of those struggling with the disease. The severity of this problem is too realistic for the general American public to blame obesity on genetics, and its consequences are far too dangerous for the public to keep tiptoeing around the issue for the sake of protecting overweight citizens.

Over the past three decades, the United States (as well as many other countries worldwide) has seen a drastic increase in obesity rates. According to the CDC, roughly 7% of American children in 1980 were obese; in 2010, 18% were. Obesity rates in adults more than tripled between 1980 and 2010, suggesting that the unhealthy eating habits of an older generation may be rubbing off on kids.

Many of these statistics would be insignificant if obesity didn’t lead to serious health problems, but unfortunately, obesity isn’t something we can afford to shrug off anymore. The immediate health risks that go hand-in-hand with obesity are bone and joint issues as well as social and psychological problems.

In the long run, obesity is even more harmful; the CDC suggests that obese children will likely become obese adults, develop heart disease (the number one cause of death in America), develop Type II Diabetes (the number seven cause of death in America), suffer a stroke (the number four cause of death in America), and perhaps even develop certain cancers associated with obesity, including breast, colon, endometrium, esophagus, kidney, pancreas, gall bladder, thyroid, ovary, cervix, and prostate cancers. By the way, cancer is the number two cause of death in America, so for those who are keeping track at home, we’re saying four of the top ten leading causes of death in America can be linked to obesity.

Not only is it clear that obesity is quickly on the rise in youth and adults, but it also keeps being misconstrued as a problem with society’s views. It’s time that people with the most influence on kids start taking the necessary steps to prevent obesity at a young age. Ten years ago, this burden would have fallen on the shoulders of parents, but it’s evident that parental enforcement (or perhaps, lack thereof) of good nutrition and exercise isn’t helping prevent obesity. In 2013, when obesity among youth is at an all time high, it’s time that schools start promoting these values, and that’s exactly what Massachusetts schools did when they sent home so-called “fat letters” in early 2013.

In general, it’s safe to say that most Americans believe obesity is dangerous and may be getting a little out of hand these days, but it can be very difficult for people to acknowledge health problems like obesity when they hit close to home. Whether it’s a family member, friend, or neighbor, obesity surrounds us, but we’ve become diluted to the problem due to over-exposure. When Massachusetts schools sent home fat letters to families of children with high BMIs (Body Mass Indexes), they were simply warning parents that their children may be at-risk for obesity based on numerical data from a height/weight ratio. The first step in any recovery program is acknowledging the presence of a problem in your life, and that’s exactly what these fat letters accomplished; by informing parents that their child wasn’t in a safe weight range for their respective height and gender, Massachusetts schools called attention to a back-burner issue that has been avoided for too long.

Typically, minorities and the impoverished have much higher obesity rates than others, indicating that childhood obesity could be the result of either parents buying more calories for smaller prices, or parents simply not knowing good nutritional practices. The first issue, parents getting more bang for their buck by buying high-calorie-low-nutrition snacks, is a tough problem to tackle. Poverty rates among minorities are significantly higher than poverty rates among whites, suggesting that poverty and obesity may be closely related. This relationship makes sense, considering that families on a tight budget can only afford to pay for the most calories possible, not necessarily the most nutritional foods. Solving this side of the issue may take decades–alleviating poverty and balancing prices between junk food and nutritional food aren’t going to happen overnight and will require massive legislature changes to facilitate the process.

However, the second problem, lack of nutritional education, is a far more solvable issue. By educating students, parents, and the general public about proper health and nutrition (and why it’s important), schools can assist in the prevention of obesity. The Massachusetts schools’ fat letters are just one method of this obesity prevention program. While the negative connotation of the nickname certainly doesn’t garner much support for the initiative, most of the public outcry stems from the concern that schools are getting too involved in their students’ health. However, when schools mandate that students take physical education and health classes, aren’t they essentially doing the same thing?

In addition, when parents, for some reason or another, are unable or unwilling to help their children stay as healthy as possible, that burden falls on schools. When parents send their kids to school, the teachers and administration assume in loco parentis, or “in the place of a parent”, meaning that they assume the responsibility for students’ safety and well-being. Thus, schools must do everything in their power to keep their students healthy and safe, which is why schools offer physical education classes, health classes, sports and sports clubs, and healthy meals according to the 1995 School Meals Initiative (SMI). While parents should assume the majority of the responsibility for keeping their kids healthy, schools use programs like the SMI to shoulder that task when parents aren’t around to do so. Additionally, the many resources that schools have at their disposal make it far easier for them to care for students. Thus, it makes sense that schools should take an active role in improving the health of their students.

The fat letters sent out by Massachusetts schools were carefully worded letters that displayed data showing a student’s BMI relative to the CDCs benchmarks for healthy and unhealthy ranges. These letters were in no way harshly written, and they were sent directly home to keep this issue as private as possible, avoiding embarrassment for the student and/or family. By justly bringing to light an often neglected issue, Massachusetts schools simply raised awareness of a dangerous disease and encouraged parents to take action at home to further prevent long-term health problems. Understandably, the system isn’t perfect; the health of kids with higher than average muscle mass isn’t always accurately represented by BMI benchmarks, but kids who fall into that category are obviously not at risk for obesity. Despite minor hiccups in the initiative, these fat letters bring much-needed attention directly to parents who may not otherwise know the health risks or signs of obesity, effectively educating families on the disease and leading to its prevention. No one likes to hear that they are flawed, but when ignorance could lead to serious health problems down the road, the right choice can sometimes be the hard one.

 

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