Is Packing Your Kid's Lunch an Anti-Obesity Tool?

02/27/2014 01:33 pm ET | Updated Apr 29, 2014

When you look at a group of elementary school kids, can you tell who's at risk of becoming obese?

And more importantly, what can be done to change that predicted outcome?

Well, some of the predictors are quite obvious: heavier parents, high soda and sugary drinks consumption, and hours of TV and video games have all been linked to obesity.

But the observation that kids who skip breakfast, or that kids who sleep less tend to be overweight were less expected.

Can the wisdom of the crowd and ideas from non-professionals suggest other links that health experts are unaware of?

Does your childhood determine your BMI?

A new study, led by Kirsten Bevelander and published in PLOS ONE recruited participants to a website through They were asked about their weight and height, and about childhood behaviors and experiences that might have affected their current weight status. The participants were asked to think of things from their childhood that may have influenced their current BMI, and create a question starting with "when you were a child..."

In two weeks 532 people participated. The mean BMI was 29, and the mean age was 26 years (the average young person in this study was overweight, much like the average general population). The researchers seeded the website with a few basic questions, and participants posed 56 new questions of their own.

And the results? Sixteen of the crowd-sourced questions were significantly correlated with BMI. Low BMI was most correlated with whether someone packed your lunch for school as a kid, whether meals were prepared with fresh ingredients, whether parents talked about nutrition, and whether the child engaged in regular outdoor activities with their family.

The recurrent theme is parental involvement.

More research will tell if a sandwich and apple from home and meals made from scratch are indeed a predictor of weight status as an adult. Both of these are plausible sources of healthier, lower calorie food -- but both may also be just indicators of a more organized home and higher socioeconomic status.

What's remarkable already is that young adults think that it was within Mom and Dad's power to influence their thinness; they reflect -- at least in retrospect -- that caregivers who took the time to cook meals and prepare a bagged lunch protected them from gaining weight.

We have no control over the genes we endow our kids with, so go ahead, blame us if you weren't born a calorie-burning furnace. But isn't getting credit for teaching kids how to eat-for-health rewarding?

Dr. Ayala