February 18, 2014

Crowdsourcing Reveals Why Some Kids Grow Up To Be Fat

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In the age of the Internet, asking a large group of people to do a small task, or crowdsourcing, is easier than ever before.

Prof. Brian Wansink, applied economics and management, combined crowdsourcing and food psychology to brainstorm childhood experiences that could lead to adults becoming overweight and then surveyed the same people who helped brainstorm to see if their ideas had any merit.

“Being able to predict whether your child is going to grow up to be an overweight adult can be very beneficial to people,” Wansink said.

According to Wansink, most of the research about childhood predictors of adult obesity has not been interesting because it has turned up results that make intuitive sense.

Studies have shown that having overweight parents or drinking a lot of soda as a child can lead to adult weight problems, according to Wansink.

In collaboration with visiting Ph.D. students at Cornell last summer and the Complex Systems Group at the University of Vermont, Wansink used crowdsourcing to find childhood habits and experiences that had not been previously considered by academia when determining what could lead to an adult being overweight.

The experiment involved inviting people to a website where they would be asked to create a question about “what they believe was predictive of whether a kid would grow up to be fat,” according to Wansink.

After posing their own question, the participants answered every other question that had been asked before them, and filled out a form with their age, height, and weight, according to Wansink. Height and weight were used to calculate Body Mass Index or BMI, a common measure which can be used to determine whether or not a person is overweight.

Over 500 people responded to 50 percent or more of the questions posed. The researchers collected a list of potential indicators of future weight problems that ranged from conventional to outside the (lunch) box.

“People whose parents used food as a tool were almost always going to be overweight,” Wansink said, giving examples of offering ice cream as a reward for good grades or withholding dessert if homework is not completed.

Other childhood experiences that were associated with being a healthy weight as an adult included spending time with your parents outside, talking about nutrition with your parents, eating home-cooked meals for dinner with your family, and drinking more milk than soda.

Damon Winter / The New York TimesTerrible take-out | Prof. Brian Wansink, applied economics and management, found that the more often parents make their children dinner from scratch, the less likely the children are to grow up to be overweight.