The Case Against School-Based BMI Testing


Due to increasing concerns regarding childhood obesity, many schools in the United States have begun weighing and measuring students in order to determine if their body mass index (BMI) is within acceptable limits.  Some schools even send home letters regarding this or report the student’s BMI via so-called “BMI report cards” or “Fitnessgrams.”  Overall, there are many reasons that this is a dangerous practice and can actually harm, rather than help, students and their health.

There is no research supporting school based screening.  According to the CDC, little is known about the actual effectiveness of BMI measurement programs in schools.  However, there is research that indicates that without proper safeguards in place, these programs may actually put students at risk of many issues detailed below.

BMI reporting may put students at risk for teasing and bullying.  Research has shown that obesity or “being fat” is a risk factor for taunting and teasing within schools.  Unfortunately, BMI testing is not always done in a private setting and may actually increase the weight-related bullying that a student experiences.  It is also important to note that bullying actually places students at risk for a number or negative consequences including binge eating behaviors, lower levels of physical activity, decreased self-esteem, and higher weights.  

BMI reporting may increase dieting and unhealthy weight control behaviors.  Although some people may argue that one of the goals of BMI reporting is to get students to lose weight, perhaps through dieting, multiple research studies indicate that this is a bad idea.

  A specific study at UCLA found that two-thirds of dieters actually regained more weight than they lost on their diets.  In addition, dieters are more likely to engage in binge eating behaviors.  In a nutshell, diets are not effective forms of weight control.

It is also important to note that calorie-restrictive diets for children who have not gone through puberty can actually stunt growth in height.

  Dieting during adolescence can also increase a person’s risk for developing an eating disorder.  One study found that for adolescent females, dieting could increase the risk of developing an eating disorder by up to 18 times.

Multiple health organizations have issued policy statements against school based BMI testing.  Position statements have been issued from multiple organizations related to eating disorder treatment, research, and prevention stating that they do not support school based BMI testing.   In addition, The American Heart Association has also issued a policy stating “The American Heart Association does not recommend BMI assessment programs used for individual health screening purposes unless there is careful consideration of privacy issues, adequate training, measurement techniques, parental notification, adequate evaluation, and the importance of linking families/caregivers with resources in the community.”

It is important for all schools to foster an environment where students feel confident in their bodies and are able to enjoy moving them in healthy ways.

  While it is a wonderful thing that school districts and educators are concerned about the health of students, BMI measurement programs may not be the best choice.  Schools may want to look into implementing programs that teach students about eating a balanced diet, engaging in intuitive eating, and finding ways to move their bodies that they actually enjoy.

Tell Your School Not to Measure Students' BMI


Centers for Disease Control. Body Mass Index Measurement in Schools: Executive Summary.  

Ikeda, J.P., Crawford, P.B., Woodward-Lopez, G. (2006). BMI screening in schools: helpful or harmful. Health Education Research Theory & Practice, 21(6), 761-769.

Facts and Concerns About School-Based BMI Screening, Surveillance and Reporting.  Developed by The Academy for Eating Disorders, Binge Eating Disorders Association, Eating Disorders Coalition for Research, Policy & Action, Families Empowered and Supporting Treatment of Eating Disorders, and Strategic Training Initiative for the Prevention of Eating Disorders and Kendrin Sonneville, ScD, RD, University of Michigan School  of Public Health.  

Mann, T., Tomiyama, J., Westling, E., Lew, A., Samuels, B., & Chatman, J. (2007). Medicare’s search for effective obesity treatments: Diets are not the answer. American Psychologist, 62(3), 220-233.

Nihiser, A.J., Lee, S.M., Wechsler, H., McKenna, M., Odom, E., Reinold, C., Thompson, D., Grummer-Strawn, L. (2009). BMI Measurement in Schools. Pediatrics, 124, S89-S97.

Patton, G., Selzer, R., Coffey, C., Carlin, J., & Wolfe, R. (1999). Onset of adolescent eating disorders: population based cohort study over 3 years. BMJ, 318. 765-768.

Policy Position Statement on Body Mass Index (BMI) Surveillance and Assessment in Schools. By the American Heart Association.

Continue Reading