Nudging Childhood Obesity

When I was a kid, obesity was not the norm. Admittedly, this was a long time ago, and no doubt I only remember brief and highly selective snippets of the time –modified, no doubt, to serve whatever demands are required in the present. But in these unexpurgated, sketches, I have memories of labeling the occasional child in the playground as ‘fat’. Whoever it was stood out from the rest –ex gregis in the true etymological sense of the word ‘egregious’- and so through the insouciance of childhood, were forever condemned to wear the epithet like a poorly fitting sweater.

Maybe we just didn’t have enough to eat in those halcyon days of early Winnipeg; maybe the winters were too severe and the necessary clothes too heavy to allow the accumulation of excessive girth. But let’s face it, normal is what we see around us. It is parochial. It is the statistics of one box. And yet, isn’t that how we judge: by what we know? If I am obese, and my child is too, then what’s the problem? And if all his friends, and all my friends are large, then how am I to adjudicate another norm? Thin is aberrant, not fat.

I came across an interesting article in Forbes magazine reporting about a study –several studies, in fact- demonstrating the inability of parents to judge whether or not their child was overweight:

This is worrisome, to say the least -unless of course you change the definition of what weight is normal… But no matter the norm, health risks for diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease generally increase with increasing BMI (Body Mass Index -which is the weight in kilograms divided by the square of the height in meters: kg/m2).

And it is difficult to rationalize the increasing prevalence of corpulence in the population as an evolutionary process. It’s hard to understand how plumpness would be of any survival benefit, or why it would be selected for in a gene pool. There exist islands of controversy in this, of course:  But I think most analyses would suggest that obesity (BMI >30 -at least in North American population studies) adversely influences health and life span. So it would make sense to attempt to correct the issue as early as possible.

As an obstetrician, I am drawn to the idea that management of pregnancy and birth weight are important. I was intrigued by a prediction model I saw reported in the BBC from 2012 suggesting the risks for subsequent obesity of a child could be predicted at birth with about 80% accuracy:  I haven’t seen much about this recently, so I don’t know how well it has stood the test of scientific scrutiny, but at least it was an interesting thesis. A start.

Recently, the Canadian Task Force on Preventive Health published an update on childhood obesity guidelines:  It contains the usual admonitions against junk food and physical inactivity, of course, but advocates some innovative strategies, I think. For example, because the circadian rhythms of teenagers have been found to differ from the adults who are teaching them, it recommended starting classes later in the morning and suggested breaks in each class. And walking to school, where feasible, as part of the exercise regime… Dr. Brian Goldman, host of CBC’s ‘White Coat, Black Art’ program, while agreeing with the guidelines, detected some downsides to the recommendations however:

The contributing factors to obesity –let alone childhood obesity- are legion: genetics, dietary habits, social milieu, parental influences, environmental conditions, Media, socioeconomic status, and peer group expectations, to name a few. None are solely responsible, but unless there are some counteracting forces –incentives- all are important. Behaviour, habits, and expectations are learned phenomena and it may be something as simple as imitation of parents or friends that starts it off and then sustains it.

When faced with uncountable opponents and overwhelming odds, how can Society possibly succeed in changing things? Well, simplistically, it needs to change attitudes. Change what the majority considers acceptable. Change the mythos. It is slowly changing the acceptability of smoking as a norm; even the legitimacy of drinking and driving is under scrutiny –not only in the courts but also in the minds of drinkers. Some things are just not seen as cool nowadays.

But, given the importance of preventing childhood obesity for the health and well-being of future generations and given the relative lack of success so far, I think we need a new (old?) approach. There is a freshly-named, although age-old practice, termed ‘Nudge Theory’. It is a euphemism that my mother would have simply called manipulation because, although cleverly disguised, that’s really what it is. Wikipedia has succinct explanation: Nudge theory (or Nudge) is a concept in behavioral science, political theory and economics which argues that positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions to try to achieve non-forced compliance can influence the motives, incentives and decision making of groups and individuals, at least as effectively – if not more effectively – than direct instruction, legislation, or enforcement. Here are two introductions –take your choice: or

Education, and early identification and treatment of those at risk of becoming obese are obviously important and desirable, but I think we need something more. Something with a proven track record, albeit in different fields. Maybe ad campaigns and directed manipulation –sorry, nudging– would be valuable adjuncts. We are media savvy nowadays, and used as a tool for change, it seems ideal. As long as we are certain of our goals, and the science is correct, I think it is an ethically acceptable approach, and one with great potential.

I did, though, run across a light-hearted, but nonetheless cautionary article about nudging in the Toronto Globe and Mail:

However, we have to take advantage of all the tools at our disposal. My mother’s manipulation was unsubtle and in my face; nudging is not. If we are going to be successful in stopping the steadily increasing tide of obesity, we need to revise expectations, and change what we accept as normal. We have to alter folkways and mores –in other words the rules that society uses to guide behavior. Nudge them, I suppose…

We need the courage to try novel approaches. There is a quote by Erasmus that is germane: A nail is driven out by another nail. Habit is overcome by habit. Okay, so let’s change them. Nudge them. No! I hate the verbal evasion. Let’s mold them.


One thought on “Nudging Childhood Obesity

  1. […] Although the word ‘obesity’ was not used until the beginning of the 17th century, the suspicion that there was something distinctly unhealthy about it has been with us for millenia –certainly long before Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice was written. There was a time, of course, when food was scarce and so its acquisition and display was considered a sign of wealth and power. Only the more extreme examples of over indulgence seemed to stand out as unhealthy and undesireable. But it’s true that our standard of acceptance has varied over the centuries; our idea of what is normal is very much influenced by what we see around us (as I have commented in a previous essay: […]


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