A Smart Incentive or Obesity Persecution?

French diet guru Pierre Dukan is urging his government to give extra marks in school for a healthy BMI. The Telegraph reports:

“Obesity is a real public health problem that is rarely – if at all – taken into account by politicians,” Mr Dukan told newspaper Le Parisien ahead of the book’s launch.

Mr Dukan said his education plan would be “a good way to sensitise teenagers to the need for a balanced diet.”

He denied it would punish overweight children, saying: “There is nothing wrong with educating children about nutrition. This will not change anything for those who do not need to lose weight. For the others, it will motivate them.”

This reminds me of the fitness test the University of Chicago administers to all incoming undergraduates, and the rampant cheating it inspires. The “punishment” for failing the fitness test was P.E. classes through your first year. So on the one hand, you had those who would try to trick the fitness test (these tips are traded on message boards before school starts, one being holding the heart rate meter at varying intensities to trick it) in order to place out of gym classes. On the other hand, you had students who wanted to take the P.E. classes, trying to game their way into them, since those who fail the fitness test have priority status into all gym classes.

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  1. Erik Jensen says:

    BMI might be good for epidemiology, but it says little about an individual. Arnold Schwarzenegger in his physical prime was probably “morbidly obese” by this measure. The University of Chicago has the right idea with a variety of fitness measures.

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    • Ahnold says:

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      • Enter your name... says:

        You don’t have to be an “Arnold” to have a problem with using the BMI as a sole measurement. Talk to anybody in the military, where being overweight is a career-destroying move: everyone knows people who have failed the BMI test but passed easily when they got “taped out” (physically measured to calculate their body fat).

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    • Mark says:

      The thing that cracks me up about BMI measurements is that they were supposed to do away with the old height/weight charts – no more looking up the X and Y coordinates of your height and weight on some silly chart you can never find; just take the cube root of your height (in furlongs) and divide it by the cosine of your weight (in troy ounces) and voila – you get your BMI!

      In practice this is all too complicated for most people, so how do we make it easier? With height/weight charts, of course! Only now, instead of finding that this height and that weight makes you borderline overweight, you find that this height and that weight give you a BMI of 28.3, and then you have to go look at ANOTHER chart to determine what your BMI means.

      P.S. To make at least one borderline-relevant observation: the very fact that the BMI calculations can be reduced to height/weight charts means they’re no more (or less) accurate or helpful than the old height/weight charts were – that is, the governator would have appeared equally unfit on the old charts as with the new-fangled BMI.

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  2. Mitch says:

    The gym classes at my university were actually a lot of fun. I regret not having taken more of them

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  3. Clancy says:

    Yeah, if only there was some way to make teenagers self-conscious about their weight. If only we could make high school more of a living hell for fat kids, we could shame them into loosing weight! If only we’d thought of it sooner.

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    • Enter your name... says:

      And if we give them “bad grades”, we can make sure that those fat kids have a worse chance of graduating or going to college, which will make it easier for future researchers to prove that obesity causes poverty.

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      • James says:

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      • Enter your name... says:

        And whether you’re overweight or not should have what, exactly, to do with whether your ACADEMIC grades are high or low? Why exactly should being overweight make you flunk high school or be unable to attend college?

        Schools are fundamentally supposed to be academic institutions, not the student’s entire life. Let the doctor give the child a bad grade if the child has controllable health problems. Don’t pretend it’s an academic problem.

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      • James says:

        “Schools are fundamentally supposed to be academic institutions, not the student’s entire life.”

        Maybe we should re-think that “supposed to be” a little, and have schools which are fundamentally about preparing students for life. Which means that in addition to academics, they should teach things such as basic financial literacy (see earlier column), what used to be called “home ec” (one of the most useful courses I took in high school, and not just because I was one of two guys in a class of girls), shop classes, health & sex ed, and basic physical fitness.

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  4. Gerry says:

    This proposal would reinforce a rewards system that the science increasingly repudiates. I’m not saying the argument is settled, but at the very least, offering rewards for activities that would otherwise be undertaken willingly decreases motivation and performance. (Lepper, Greene, & Nisbett, 1973) Rewards have negative effects mainly when they are clearly contingent on doing another activity, when they are expected, and when they are tangible, such as money or prizes or grades (Lepper & Henderlong, 2000, p. 261).

    Lillard, Angeline Stoll (2008-08-12). Montessori : The Science Behind the Genius (p. 157). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

    Lillard, Angeline Stoll (2008-08-12). Montessori : The Science Behind the Genius (p. 155). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

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  5. Mike says:

    Why not have a separate “health” grade? It doesn’t even have to mean anything. The sheer fact that kids are getting graded on it will have some impact. Though it could be upsetting to people who have known chronic health issues that can’t be improved…

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  6. Kyle says:

    This is unfair on the children of parent’s that don’t care about grades. These kids are still living with their parents and have little to no control of their diet. If your parents provide you with nothing but pizza and hot pockets then how are you supposed to lose weight?

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  7. Travis says:

    combining two horrible things: “weight shaming” and “arbitrary grading” can’t lead to anything productive or good.

    I’m all for addressing the obesity epidemic pretty much anywhere, but this is definitely the wrong way to do it. Particularly when relying on the archaic BMI…

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  8. Rider says:

    So this character thinks that a) losing weight is about motivation and b) fat kids have no motivation? (Oh and c) fat people are stupid and illiterate. Does he really think anyone over the age of 3 knows nothing about “healthy” foods?)

    He’s not been looking at the research in either area has he.

    I’m not sure I go for UC’s idea either. They are just using a different proxy for health and one that isn’t that useful anyway. I know diabetics who have good results on heart rate monitors after running, I am not that fit but my bloodwork says I’m very healthy indeed: low blood sugar, low blood pressure, low cholesterol. Why should I be forced to take classes?

    It’s well known that if you want to measure something you have to measure that thing, not proxies for it, and that most things are measured because they can be, not because the result is useful.

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