NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - School polices that let parents know when their children are overweight or obese appear to have little impact on the problem, according to a U.S. study.
In the last decade, almost all public schools in California collected information about the height and weight of fifth, seventh and ninth graders, but only some schools opted to send the results to parents -- giving Kristine Madsen, at the University of California, San Francisco, a chance to evaluate 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 at that point than children whose parents were not notified, according to a report published in the Archives of Pediatric Adolescent Medicine.
So perhaps schools should concentrate their efforts on interventions that have the most impact, such as making sure that school lunches are 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."
Her findings were based on data from nearly 7 million children.
Letting parents know their children are too heavy could still have an impact, Madsen said, noting that most parents were notified by letter, which some may not have gotten.
In addition, almost none of the letters used the terms "overweight" or "obese," instead referring to body mass index (BMI) -- a measure of weight relative to height -- which some parents may not have understood.
Health experts are currently divided over the benefits of schools screening children 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, maintain there is not enough evidence to support the practice.
The nation's schools reflect that division. As of 2006, 41 percent of school districts required officials to measure children's height and weight, and three-quarters of those schools informed parents of the results.
That the current system is not having an effect is not a huge surprise, Madsen said. Even if parents modify the home environment by providing healthier meals, for example, if nothing changes at school -- where children spend most of their time, it's going to be hard to see any impact.
In addition, 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 they can," she said.
Reporting by Alison McCook at Reuters Health; editing by Elaine Lies