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By Alison McCook
NEW YORK (Reuters Health) Jul 08 - School policies that let parents know when their children are overweight or obese appear to have little impact on the problem, a new study finds.
In the last decade, almost all public schools in California collected information about height and weight on fifth-, seventh-, and ninth-graders, but only some schools opted to send the results to parents. Dr. Kristine A. Madsen of the University of California, San Francisco took advantage of the different policies and evaluated the impact of that notification.
She found that years later, children whose parents were told they were overweight were no more likely to have lost weight years later than children whose parents were not notified.
So maybe, Dr. Madsen says, this means school officials should concentrate their efforts on interventions that have the most impact, such as making school lunches healthier, and increasing the use of physical activity.
"Physical education is probably the most underused public health tool we have," she told Reuters Health. "We really would urge schools to make sure their environments are supporting physical activity to the extent possible."
And letting parents know their kids are too heavy could still have an impact, Dr. Madsen said. She notes that most parents were notified via letter, which some may not have received. Plus, almost none of the letters used the terms "overweight" or "obese." Instead they referred to body mass index, which some parents might not have understood.
Health experts are currently divided over the benefits of schools screening kids for BMI. Currently, the Institute of Medicine recommends it, along with parental notification, but other agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Heart Association say there's not enough evidence to support the practice.
The nation's schools reflect that division: As of 2006, 41% of school districts required officials to measure kids' height and weight, and three-quarters of those schools notified parents of the results.
That the current system is not having an effect is not a huge surprise, Dr. Madsen told Reuters Health. Even if parents modify the home environment by providing healthier meals, for instance, if nothing changes at school -- where kids spend most of their time -- it's going to be hard to see an effect, she noted.
Plus, a single letter may not be enough to convince parents to make drastic changes at home, she added. "Most parents are already doing the best that they can."
Dr. Madsen's findings, based on data from nearly seven million children, were published online July 4th in the Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine.
Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med 2011.
Reuters Health Information © 2011
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