Rants For Thought

Guest Post by Alyce Wilson: BMI at 3? Are You Kidding Me?

Alyce Wilson and I met through a writing competition last year and became fast friends after we realized we had writing and our love of children in common. Alyce asked me if she could share this guest post with you today. It’s very scary how much the faulty measurement of BMI is being used to determine the health of an individual, without taking any other metric into consideration. This is Alyce’s, and her son, Kung Fu Panda’s, story.

“Your child’s BMI is higher than we’d like to see,” the R.N. told me, after doing the height-to-weight ratio that has been the bane of many adults’ lives. We were at my son’s annual exam. He had just turned 3.

After the initial shock wore off — they’re calculating BMI for 3-year-olds? — I tuned into what she was saying. Without asking about my son’s diet and exercise habits, she ran through a list of recommendations: See that he eats at least 5 fruits and vegetables a day; limit TV time to 2 hours or less a day; encourage him to get an hour of exercise a day; avoid sugary drinks and snacks. What made her so certain we weren’t already doing these things?

I would have argued, except I knew there were areas we could improve. My son — the same boy who, as an infant, used to gobble down whatever fruit or vegetable I pureed — had become extremely picky since learning to feed himself. I was about to speak up and say that my son didn’t eat any sugary snacks, but I knew that he ate too many carbohydrates, which convert into sugar. As defensive as I felt, I knew we could improve.

But that wasn’t the point. After all the criticism over BMI use in adults, for its inability to distinguish between different body types, I couldn’t believe they were now whipping out this faulty diagnostic tool for children. In its directive to practitioners, the Centers for Disease Control themselves admit that the method isn’t perfect, acknowledging that muscular individuals, for example, may have a high BMI. They also state that “The concerns associated with using BMI for adults also apply to children and adolescents.”

“Why the sudden change?” I should have asked; and I would have if I hadn’t been so stunned. Up until now, our friendly pediatrician had merely compared my son’s height and weight percentiles to his own previous measurements. The purpose, he had explained to me, was to track his growth. As long as he fell into the normal range on the growth charts, he was considered healthy. Because of this, I knew that my son had begun life on the high end of the charts in all areas, the largest being his above-90th-percentile head (a family trait that I like to believe makes room for extra brains). On his way towards age 2, he had gradually slowed down, with his height hitting the 50th percentile range and his weight coming down into the 70-some percentile. His head, however, well, it’s still a repository for extra brains.

I was full of angry rationalizations. His weight had been higher because, for the first time, they had weighed him in his full clothing. The nurse had gotten his height wrong and had to recheck it (this much is true). I weighed him and measured him at home, plugged it into the CDC’s child BMI calculator and got the same results. Blast it!

The more I thought about it, the more irritated I got. Despite the fact that his percentiles had NOT changed since his checkup on his 2nd birthday, I was supposed to believe that overnight he had gone from being “healthy” and “developing normally” to being on some sort of nebulous tipping point towards lifelong obesity and health issues. As parents know and others who have been around children can imagine, there’s enough to worry about when it comes to raising children. I was not ready to transfer my own lifelong worries over weight and body image issues to him.

Still, the recommended changes sounded good, so I’ve been encouraging him to snack on apple slices and carrots instead of graham crackers or goldfish. We do something active nearly every day, and I am not as quick to turn on the TV in the afternoon when we get back from our morning routine (preschool some days; the library’s story time on others). I have been tracking his weight and height, without telling him about my concerns, and am happy to see that as his height is increasing, his weight has stayed steady.

Yet, I fear the next physical in four months. My son’s noggin is not going to magically shrink (where will the brains go?), and I happen to agree with my fellow Yahoo! Contributor Network writer Peter Flom, who wrote about the problems with BMI. Those with larger heads are destined to come in with a higher BMI than people with smaller brain houses. Flom also suggested that those with short legs would suffer from the diagnostic tool’s flaws, and it just so happens that for a long time now I’ve had to buy tops that are one size larger than my son’s bottoms. Right now, he seems to have my husband’s muscular barrel chest but my family’s average-length legs. I have faith that someday he’ll hit a growth spurt and things will even out, but until then I’m predicting many more chidings from well-meaning health practitioners, irrespective of the true nature of my son’s anatomy and health.

For the sake of my son, I’ll keep my feelings about the injustice to myself. I’m proud of the fact that he’d rather have a banana than a lollipop, and that, unprompted, he asks me to do the kids’ yoga DVD or the “Sesame Street Get Up and Dance” CD we call “having a dance party.” Playing with him the other day, he told me, “Exercise is good for your body, Mommy.” I agreed. And if he’s learning those lessons early, I think I’m doing everything a parent should do.

Alyce Wilson and her son, 3-year-old Kung Fu Panda
Alyce Wilson and her son, 3-year-old Kung Fu Panda

Alyce Wilson is a write-at-home mom who lives in the Philadelphia area. She is currently participating in a video contest on early education, so she’d appreciate it if you could take a moment to stop by and vote for her video about “Puppet Problem Solving” (the still shows her son with two puppets). If she wins the contest, Alyce plans to put the money towards Kung Fu Panda’s preschool tuition for this year.

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5 thoughts on “Guest Post by Alyce Wilson: BMI at 3? Are You Kidding Me?

  1. Thank you so much for publishing this. It looks great! I love the picture you chose of us. You may not be able to tell, but it was at the Thanksgiving program at his preschool, and he was wearing a turkey hat.

  2. Being healthy and enjoying exercise is so, so much more important than getting hung up on the number on the scales. I’m horrified that a doctor would start talking about BMI for a three year old! A nurse at my old GP surgery told me that my BMI was “bordering on too high” but never even asked about my lifestyle – I exercised a lot, I ate fairly healthily, I was strong and fit. Why are we so obsessed with the number?!

  3. I HATE the numbers!! Since adolescence my ex-doctor got into the habit of weighing me prior to any explanation of any of my health concerns. He would then look at me self-righteously and tell me, “There’s your problem fatty. Loose some weight and you’ll feel better.”. My clothing sizes have generally been “normal” sizes (medium to large) for most of my adult life (excluding pregnancies)…yet my BMI has put me in the dangerously morbidly obese category since my teens. My BP has always been low (I’m HYPOtensive), my bloodwork has always come back WNL (within normal limits), I don’t get winded easily during physical activity, and I have never had any major health concerns. These are MY indicators of health, not a number found on a flawed chart! I, therefore, encourage everyone to embrace theirs and their children’s health on their own terms…especially if that means disregarding the pointless numbers!

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