Sending school-based body mass index reports home is ineffective, study says

Photo of a weight scale
Celine Bellegarda/Senior Staff
The study aimed to determine whether body mass index reporting conducted by schools could help improve students’ weight, said Hannah Thompson, a research scientist in the UC Berkeley School of Public Health and a senior investigator of the study.

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A study conducted by researchers in the UC Berkeley School of Public Health has found that sending body mass index, or BMI, reports taken at school to parents is ineffective in improving student weight status.

Spanning from 2014 to 2017, The Fit Study examined 79 elementary and middle schools in five districts within California. The study aimed to determine whether BMI reporting conducted by schools could help improve students’ weight, said Hannah Thompson, a research scientist in the School of Public Health.

According to Thompson, a senior investigator of the study, BMI reporting has been a source of controversy for years because of its potential to stigmatize overweight children. The Fit Study is the first of its kind to evaluate the effectiveness of BMI reports.

“There hasn’t been any sort of randomized evidence to demonstrate whether or not this works,” Thompson said. “So this can conclusively and definitively put an end to the debate whether or not this practice improves student weight status.”

Thompson noted that the study found that half of parents did not even remember receiving the report, and most were not surprised by the information contained in it.

BMI reports are not effective in changing a parent’s decisions, Thompson added.

“We know that student health obesity is related to the environment that you live in,” Thompson said. “It’s related to genetics. It’s related to all your income. It’s related to your stress. It’s related to all sorts of things, and a single report doesn’t change any of those social or environmental factors.”

Among other things, the study found that weighing students in school may cause discomfort for some, according to the research brief of The Fit Study.

Campus senior and Body Positive DeCal facilitator Alma Paz said she believes the use of BMI reporting can be detrimental to students because it promotes the idea that health is weight-centric.

“Too many people base so much of our health using the BMI scale, failing to acknowledge that health is a complex thing,” Paz said. “The BMI scale does not differentiate weight from muscle tissue to weight from fat tissue and fails to consider things like cholesterol levels, mental health, among many other things.”

According to Thompson, sending out BMI reports is not a good use of school resources, and she added that other avenues of change should be pursued. She suggested that schools become “community hubs” for nutrition and provide resources such as healthy food.

Kristine Madsen, School of Public Health associate professor and the primary investigator of the study, echoed this idea.

“Investing in environmental changes–like enhancing the nutritional quality of the foods and beverages served and creating more opportunities for physical activity–has been shown to reduce cardiovascular risk in youth,” Madsen said in an email.

Thompson added that the next step is to disseminate this information and in turn help schools make evidence-based decisions and move toward practices that will provide more benefits for students.

Contact Kelly Suth at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @kellyannesuth.