A false-color scanning electron micrograph of adipose tissue (body fat), showing lobules rich in adipocytes (fat cells). Image courtesy of David Gregory and Debbie Marshal, Wellcome Images.
My kid overweight? Fat chance!
Everybody knows America has a weight problem. All you have to do is look around.
It’s harder, of course, to look in the mirror. And harder still see obesity as a family issue.
Consider the latest poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health. Roughly 69 percent of American adults are overweight or obese; more than 80 percent of Americans think obesity is a major public health problem.
But when asked about obesity in their families, only one in five kids had a parent who feared their child would grow up to be overweight as an adult.
NPR’s Shankar Vedantam put it this way: “Put another way, assuming current trends persist, parents of 80 percent of American children think all these kids will somehow end up being among the lucky 31 percent of adults who are not overweight.”
The math just doesn’t work.
This kind of “we’re different, we’ll beat the odds” outlook is not uncommon. “People underestimate their likelihood of experiencing all kinds of negative events, including medical illnesses,” English neuroscientist Tali Sharot told NPR. “And they do that for their family members as well. So not only do we think we are immune more than other people, we think that our kids are also more immune than other kids.”
Such optimism is generally a good thing. When we expect to do well, we tend to do better. But in battling public obesity, it can be problematic, say experts. Ominous warnings of future obesity tend to be tuned out quickly. They’re too negative. People may agree with the message, but they don’t think it applies to them.
Vedantam says a more effective technique is to exploit everyone’s optimism bias:
“Don’t tell parents obesity is a major public health problem. Tell them how family dinners and exercise can turbocharge their kids, and you might get them to think, ‘Yeah, I can totally see my kid being a superstar!’”