Mandy McGowan got a letter in the mail about her five-year-old daughter that made her want to cry. Little Izzie-Rae had been measured and weighed and found to be overweight. McGowan, who had previously suffered from an eating disorder, felt “mortified”.
“I wanted to stop her eating, and my issues with food struck again,” McGowan told UK newspaper The Mirror. “How can someone who doesn’t know my child label her? To me, fat kids sit on the couch eating fried food. She doesn’t even like fried food.”
McGowan says Izzie-Rae, the younger of her two daughters, weighs around 19kg. She eats three meals and one small treat a day. McGowan says Izzie-Rae “never sits still” and loves playing on her bike and scooter.
“No follow-up is given – no tips how to help lose the ‘fat’ title – no nothing,” she said.
The National Child Measurement Programme – or “fat letters”, as a lot of people call it – was introduced in the UK 10 years ago. It’s had plenty of criticism, with claims that very few parents find it useful.
There has been a push for a similar system of weighing and measuring young children to be introduced in Australia. Researchers have suggested parents need to be confronted about the health of their children.
There's no doubt that childhood obesity is a problem, in Australia as well as in the UK. In Australia, one in four kids is overweight or obese.
It can't just be left up to the parents to notice and do something about it. A recent WA study has shown that parents are often blind to their children's weight problems.
In the study, parents were asked to say whether they thought their child was underweight, normal weight, overweight, or very overweight. Only 0.2 per cent thought their child was very overweight. In fact, 5.8 per cent of kids were. Only 8.2 per cent thought their child was overweight, while it was actually twice that number.
Obviously, something needs to be done about childhood obesity. But it's got to be done sensitively.
WATCH a video about another child who got a "fat letter". Post continues after video....
Sending parents a letter to tell them their child is overweight seems like an unnecessarily cold way to do it that could cause more problems than it solves. Like Mandy McGowan, I would probably burst into tears if I opened a letter saying my child weighed too much (or didn't weigh enough).
One possible idea is to have health workers at parent-teacher nights. Once the parents have seen the teacher, they could sit down with the health worker, who would chat generally, to all parents, about diet and exercise. Parents could be shown a height and weight chart, and the idea of BMI discussed. This kind of individual approach might actually be helpful.
Beyond that, schools could bring in sport every day instead of once a week. (I know, they have to pack enough into the curriculum as it is, but it's been shown that if kids exercise more, it improves their attentiveness.) Governments could do more to crack down on companies that market junk food to kids.
It's all very well to say it's up to the parents to look after their own kids' weight issues. But if so many parents out there aren't even aware their kids are overweight, that isn't going to happen.
The whole community has to do something about the issue, if anything is going to change. But sending "fat letters" isn't the way to go.
What do you think is the best way to tackle childhood obesity?