Blog: The Educated Reporter

Should Schools Carry Weight of Obesity Prevention Education?

The American Medical Association is recommending that schoolchildren be taught about the dangers of obesity, and supported using revenue from proposed taxes on sugary sodas to help schools pay for the educational programs.

The call for obesity prevention education in grades 1-12 came at the AMA’s annual policy meeting held last week in Chicago. The association’s membership is hardly alone in its concern. First lady Michelle Obama has made tackling childhood obesity one of her policy priorities, and there are massive campaigns underway at the local, state and federal levels to address the underlying issues. Indeed, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports the crisis is now a full-blown epidemic. The childhood obesity rate nationally is 33 percent, triple the rate of 30 years ago.

An obvious question that springs to mind when such initiatives are proposed is how will schools find the time in an already crowded day for yet another instructional priority? It’s worth noting that the AMA’s recommendations included urging its own members to volunteer to help schools implement obesity education programs. But given the controversy surrounding proposed taxes on junk food, funding for such initiatives could still be scarce.

There are also critics who say such programs cross the line into meddling in what should be a family matter. Some efforts by school districts have been more successful, such as setting up extracurricular activity programs that involve the entire family. Others, such as sending home report cards informing parents that their child’s body-mass index qualifies them as obese, have been viewed less favorably. A 2009 research review by researchers at Boston’s Children’s Hospital found BMI report cards used by schools in the United States and in Europe had not improved parental awareness, or reduced the percentages of overweight and obese children. In some cases, the report cards might have made things worse if they spurred children to diet – something that’s discouraged at a young age because of the potential risk factors and the possible connections to adolescent eating disorders.

But as educators know – and the research supports –students can’t learn well when they’re not healthy. Recent research suggests that students who are obese score lower on standardized tests, and they are also less likely to go to college than their healthy weight peers. The reasons behind this relationship between academic performance and obesity aren’t clear-cut. Some studies suggest that a student’s self-esteem is a significant factor in academic performance, and being overweight can influence that.

Students also can’t learn when they’re not in school. A 2007 study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and Temple University found that the rate of absenteeism was 20 percent higher among children who were overweight. According to the study’s overview, obesity was as significant a factor in determining absenteeism from school as the age, gender, race, and socioeconomic status, which are the four main predictors.

And the problems don’t end when the students graduate. Economists say obesity-related expenses cost states billions of dollars annually in increased subsidized health-care costs and lost productivity.

As for the AMA’s recommendation, it would be difficult to argue that public school teachers couldn’t play a role in educating students about the heavy burden of obesity. But given the short-term harm to individual children, as well as the long-term risks for the broader community, it’s not a burden that schools can shoulder alone.



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