Copious amounts of research have been done to investigate the causes and predictors of obesity, especially as childhood obesity remains a growing concern. We are in the midst of an obesity epidemic, with more than one-third of all Americans considered obese. Researchers from Cornell University have attempted to find a new way to study predictors for childhood obesity by using crowd-sourcing. Their study has found that children with parents who are highly involved in their lives are more likely to be “slimmer adults” once they grow up.

“One of the best safeguards against your children becoming overweight as adults is how involved you are with their lives,” Brian Wansink, a professor at Cornell University and an author of the study, said in a press release.

The researchers used a crowd-sourcing method to see if it would work well in obesity research to “provide new avenues of study.” Crowd-sourcing involves reaching out to a large group of people, especially an online community, for services, ideas, or content.

The team chose to crowd-source through Reddit, a popular website running on user-generated content. They found 532 adult participants from Reddit, and asked them: “Which childhood experiences and behaviors might predict slimness or obesity in adulthood?” The participants submitted their predictors for adult weight in the form of questions, such as, “When you were a child, were your parents obese?” or “When you were a child, did someone consistently pack a lunch for you to take to school?”

What’s So Special About Crowd-Sourcing?

In this particular study, the researchers found that reaching out to an online community actually gave them ideas and perspectives they wouldn’t have thought about themselves. “What’s particularly amazing is how people have identified these childhood predictors of obesity that experts never thought about,” Kirsten E. Bevelander, an author of the study, said in the press release. “Things like bullying, number of friends, and how often parents play outdoors with their children are significantly predictive of how much a child will weigh as an adult.”

The research team hopes crowd-sourcing and screening tools could be a simple and effective way to “detect behaviors that are established early in life and have a significant influence on weight gain later in life.” That being said, the use of crowd-sourcing has its limitations. Because the nature of the study was retrospective, and the participants were self-reporting about their childhoods based on memory, it’s difficult to gauge how accurate it was. The authors write, “[B]ecause it is difficult to carefully control the quality of the questions submitted or the demographics of the participants, as would be the case with a more controlled study, this approach is most likely only a complement to, rather than a replacement for, conventional research methods.”

Of course, it’s not news that parents play a major role in either promoting or preventing obesity in children. Parents can help their children maintain healthy diets by packing well-balanced lunches from home, eating plenty of vegetables and fruit instead of processed snacks, preventing consumption of sweet drinks, and encouraging physical activity.

“Playing with your children, talking about nutrition, and simply spending time with them will make it more likely that your child becomes a slim adult,” Wansink said in the press release. “The bottom line for parents is: Spend a lot of time with your kids — it almost doesn’t matter what (activity) you do with them — just stay in their young lives.”

Source: Bevelander KE, Kaipainen K, Swain R, Dohle S, Bongard JC, Hines PD. “Crowdsourcing novel childhood predictors of adult obesity.” PLoS One, 2014.