CONCORD, N.H.—New Hampshire's first lady, a pediatrician, is backing legislation that would require the state's schools to record children's body mass index, an indicator of obesity.
Dr. Susan Lynch believes the measurement is more helpful than simply looking at a child's weight to determine health risks of being under- or overweight. Lynch, Democratic Gov. John Lynch's wife, is a strong advocate for preventing and addressing childhood obesity.
"BMI is a poor man's tool to give us an estimate of body fat content," Dr. Lynch said Monday.
Schools are a good place to screen children because not all have doctors to take the measurement, she said.
The first lady is supporting legislation to require BMI screenings in grades one, four, seven and 10. Parents would be given the information as part of a health report containing information on other health screenings, Lynch and the bill's sponsors say.
Parents could order schools not to do the screenings based on religious objections. The results would be reported without identifying individual students to the school board, superintendent and state Department of Education.
A hearing on the bill is being held by the House Education Committee on Wednesday.
BMI is the ratio of weight to height squared. It is often used to assess obesity because it is easy to measure and correlates with body fat, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC says there isn't enough evidence for it to recommend the screenings as an effective strategy for preventing or reducing childhood obesity, but it does say the screenings can be part of a comprehensive approach to address the problem.
In 2003, Arkansas became the first state to require BMI percentiles in student health records as part of a comprehensive law addressing childhood obesity. A number of states require BMI calculations, but not all require schools to notify parents.
States are taking action in the face of alarming national statistics. The CDC reports that obesity among children aged 6 to 11 has more than doubled in the past 20 years and that the rate among adolescents aged 12 to 19 has more than tripled. Obese youth are at greater risk for a variety of diseases including heart disease, bone and joint problems, sleep apnea and diabetes.
The New Hampshire bill is a request of the state Commission on Prevention of Childhood Obesity. The legislation includes only one of the commission's recommendations in a report issued in November. The panel also recommended that schools serve single-portion, nutrient-dense foods, provide fitness reports on children and take advantage of a program to buy food from local farms.
State Rep. Nancy Stiles, a bill co-sponsor and commission member, said the sponsors wanted to start by collecting the data needed to determine if the state has an obesity problem and, if so, how big it is. Future legislation could focus on programs to address obesity, said Stiles, R-Hampton.
State Rep. Joan Schulze, a Nashua Democrat and the prime sponsor, said she supports the commission's other recommendations, but they cost more money -- a scarce commodity during the recession.
The state Department of Education estimates the screenings would cost New Hampshire schools about $90,000 next year in total.
Schools' anti-obesity efforts have been criticized. In Massachusetts, the state's Public Health Council unanimously approved requiring them in April over concerns raised by an eating disorders group that said the screenings could stigmatize children.
In December, Lincoln University in Oxford, Pa., rejected requiring obese students to take a fitness class to graduate after students and health experts questioned the move.
Dr. Lynch acknowledges some parents might object to screening New Hampshire children, but is confident most will support receiving a report that simply says a child's BMI percentile is higher or lower than desirable for the age group.
The bill is not telling anyone how to live, what to eat or to change lifestyles, she said.
"It's not set out to alarm people," said Stiles. "It's set out as an awareness tool."