National Editor Tom Karst
National Editor Tom Karst

One of the great proclivities of human nature is to underestimate our shortcomings and exaggerate our attributes.

I thought of this when I read this recent report about the disconnect between parental perceptions and reality.

The study points out that only 15% of kids have parents who say they are overweight, yet national statistics indicate that fully double that number (32%) of kids are overweight or obese. It reminds me of the scene in the old musical “The Music Man” when parents were overjoyed to see their youngster in the marching band, no matter the shrill and discordant honks from Johnny’s trombone.

The research poll, sponsored by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), and Harvard School of Public Health, shines a bright light on the credibility gap between parents’ perceptions of their children and expert definitions.

The study notes that 69% of adults are now overweight, including 36% who are obese and an additional 6% who have “extreme obesity.” Yet just 20% of children in households that participated in this poll had a parent who was concerned that his or her child will be overweight as an adult.

“What, me worried?”

Researchers quoted in the news release said that parents have a hard time making connections between “national problems” and their own lives. Mom may love the baby fat in her plump son, and that approval once bestowed to a 5-year old is difficult to withdraw when Junior is 12.

An equally startling result was illuminated in this 2008 research published in the Nutrition Journal.

The gist of it was that people are pleasers. If you are doing a poll about fruit and vegetable consumption – and that fact is known by those surveyed – the participants will bias their answers to please the surveyors and conform to expectations.

From the study:

Self-reports of dietary intake in the context of nutrition intervention research can be biased by the tendency of respondents to answer consistent with expected norms (social approval bias). The objective of this study was to assess the potential influence of social approval bias on self-reports of fruit and vegetable intake obtained using both food frequency questionnaire (FFQ) and 24-hour recall methods.

A randomized blinded trial compared reported fruit and vegetable intake among subjects exposed to a potentially biasing prompt to that from control subjects. Subjects included 163 women residing in Colorado between 35 and 65 years of age who were randomly selected and recruited by telephone to complete what they were told would be a future telephone survey about health. Randomly half of the subjects then received a letter prior to the interview describing this as a study of fruit and vegetable intake. The letter included a brief statement of the benefits of fruits and vegetables, a 5-A-Day sticker, and a 5-a-Day refrigerator magnet. The remainder received the same letter, but describing the study purpose only as a more general nutrition survey, with neither the fruit and vegetable message nor the 5-A-Day materials. Subjects were then interviewed on the telephone within 10 days following the letters using an eight-item FFQ and a limited 24-hour recall to estimate fruit and vegetable intake. All interviewers were blinded to the treatment condition. “


And we know the results, don’t we?

From the abstract:

 By the FFQ method, subjects who viewed the potentially biasing prompts reported consuming more fruits and vegetables than did control subjects (5.2 vs. 3.7 servings per day, p < 0.001). By the 24-hour recall method, 61% of the intervention group but only 32% of the control reported eating fruits and vegetables on 3 or more occasions the prior day (p = 0.002).


TK:  Double wow - that's a big discrepancy in the numbers. The obvious conclusion is that we deceive ourselves. The scale doesn’t lie, but we do. A daring if dangerous marketing campaign for fresh produce should seek to awaken consumers from their fitness/health delusions about themselves and their children and point them to a solution.