BMI in Schools – Effects of the Obesity Scare on Adolescents

Adolescent girl listening to headphones

The recent hyper-focus on weight and BMI (Body Mass Index) in schools has influenced many dangerous trends, including increased engagement in disordered eating, higher likelihood of participating in dangerous dieting trends, poor self-esteem, low-body image and more.

Weight-reduction public campaigns that are intended to promote messages of health may actually be stigmatizing individuals who may not be of an ideal body type [1].  Media exposure can also increase sociocultural pressure on adolescents who may already be dealing with body dissatisfaction and/or surrounded by weight loss messages and diet culture.  The combination of these factors can be detrimental to children, adolescents, and teenagers, especially those who may have pre-existing risk factors for having an eating disorder.

BMI Measurements in Schools

Many schools throughout the United States has instituted BMI screening in of students as a means of addressing concerns surrounding childhood obesity among school-age children and adolescents.

However, the practice of measuring BMIs within schools has sparked controversy on both sides. While some may argue that it is a preventative measure or a screening that can be helpful in identifying children at risk for obesity, on the other hand, it can cause severe damage to children who may be labeled as overweight or obese.

Another problematic concern about measuring BMI within schools is the subjective view in interpreting data, especially when it comes to a child’s health and stature. BMI alone can not be singularly used as a measure of health and is limited in what it can assess about a child’s overall wellness.

One particular study investigated the adequacy of using BMI to determine the weight of children in a multi-ethnic population. It found that 17 percent of students with normal measurements were incorrectly categorized as being overweight. [2]

Researchers who conducted this study expressed concern that many students may be falsely mislabeled due to the fact that data is being misinterpreted.

Effects of Obesity Scare

School-aged children who may be labeled as overweight or obese can suffer from a broad number of harmful consequences, even though this screening process is intended as a public health prevention measure.

Many parents may be informed about their child’s BMI reading with little information about what to do, leaving many families feeling misinformed and perhaps, overwhelmed by the amount of information available in regards to child obesity.

Girl playing with fidget spinner

Surveys on families whose children receive BMI screenings and are labeled at risk for being overweight/obese have shown that parents may plan diet-related activities with their child or report intent to limit their child’s food intake [3].  As a natural reaction to information given about a child’s weight, many parents may take measures to control their child’s weight through dieting, which can lead to many adverse consequences.

Children on calorie-restricted diets who have not yet gone through puberty can physically hinder growth, including stunting growth in height.

Calorie-restricted diets in school-aged children can also trigger the development of disordered eating behaviors, such as hoarding food, binging, compulsive eating, and more.

Many of these behaviors can lead to more severe and detrimental eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder.

Many school-aged children who are labeled as overweight or obese may experience an increase in overall body dissatisfaction, lowered self-esteem, and even greater exposure to bullying due to body size.

Challenging the Stigma

Obesity prevention programs and health messages in school should be viewed cautiously, due to the inadvertent consequences that may result from hyper-focusing on weight, BMI, and body size.

It is especially concerning that these health promotion programs may be triggers for some school-aged children who have risk factors for eating disorders. While school-level BMI screenings can help identify training, this may, in fact, lead to more harmful consequences while attempting to address other health concerns.

Girl and dogAs a parent of a school-aged child, take the opportunity to learn more about these types of health programs that may be implemented within your child’s school.

Become informed and educated about the purpose of these kinds of programs, and more importantly, help secure a steady foundation for your child by modeling a healthy relationship with food and body within your home environment.

You may even consider become in advocacy work to support positive health changes within schools that truly encourage the overall physical and mental health of students.

Crystal Headshot 2About the Author: Crystal Karges, MS, RDN, IBCLC is a Contributing Writer for Eating Disorder Hope.

Crystal is a Masters-level Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) with a specialty focus in eating disorders, maternal/child health and wellness, and intuitive eating. Combining clinical experience with a love of social media and writing. As a Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor, Crystal has dedicated her career to helping others establish a healthy relationship with food and body through her work with EDH and nutrition private practice.


[1]: Tina Peckmezian, Phillipa Hay. A systematic review and narrative synthesis of interventions for uncomplicated obesity: weight loss, well-being and impact on eating disorders. Journal of Eating Disorders, 2017, Volume 5, Number 1, Page 1
[2]: Ellis K, Abrams S, Wong W. Monitoring childhood obesity: assessment of the weight/height index, Am J Epidemiol , 1999, vol. 150 (pg. 939-46)
[3]: Joanne P. Ikeda, Patricia B. Crawford, Gail Woodward-Lopez; BMI screening in schools: helpful or harmful, Health Education Research, Volume 21, Issue 6, 1 December 2006, Pages 761–769,

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on October 8, 2017.
Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on October 8, 2017.
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