Health Advice



Arkansas led the nation in measuring obesity in kids. Did it help?

Kavitha Cardoza, KFF Health News on

Published in Health & Fitness

“It offended me as a mama,” she said. “It made me feel like I wasn’t doing my job.”

She didn’t think her children looked overweight and the family pediatrician had never brought it up as a concern.

Hannah Thompson, the researcher from California, said that’s the biggest problem with BMI letters: Parents don’t know what to do with the information. Without support to help change behavior, she said, the letters don’t do much.

“You find out your child is asthmatic, and you can get an inhaler, right?” she said. “You find out that your child is overweight and where do you even go from there? What do you do?”

Kevin Gee, a professor at the University of California-Davis, who has studied BMI letters, said the mailings miss cultural nuances. In some communities, for example, people prefer their children to be heavier, associating it with comfort and happiness. Or some eat foods that they know aren’t very nutritious but are an important way of expressing love and traditions.

“There’s a lot of rich contextual pieces that we know influences rates of obesity,” Gee said. “And so how do we balance that information?”

Collins’ daughter, now 15, said that as she’s grown older she increasingly feels uncomfortable about her weight. People stare at her and sometimes make comments. (Collins’ mother asked that her daughter’s name not be published because of her age and the sensitive nature of the subject.)

“On my birthday, I went to get my allergy shots and one of the nurses told me, ‘You are getting chubbier,’” she said. “That didn’t make me feel the best.”


Collins said it pains her to see her soft-spoken daughter cover herself with her arms as if she’s trying to hide. The teenager has also begun sneaking food and avoids the mirror by refusing to turn on the bathroom light, Collins said. The girl signed up for tennis but stopped after other children made fun of her, her mother said.

Looking back, Collins said, while she wishes she had paid more attention to the BMI letters, she also would have liked practical suggestions on what to do. Collins said she had already been following the short list of recommended healthy practices, including feeding her children fruits and vegetables and limiting screen time. She isn’t sure what else she could have done.

Now everyone has an opinion on her daughter’s weight, Collins said. One person told her to put a lock on the fridge. Another told her to buy vegan snacks. Her mother bought them a scale.

“It’s a total uphill climb,” Collins said with a sigh.


This article was produced as a part of a project for the Spencer Education Journalism Fellowship .

©2024 KFF Health News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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