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When Sizing Up Childhood Obesity Risks, It Helps To Ask About Random Kids

To understand the challenges around childhood obesity in the U.S., you need to take a close look at the lives of children and the households in which their habits are formed.

NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health, where I'm a researcher, created a unique poll to do that.

The poll looked at what children are actually doing in terms of eating, drinking and physical activity. Are they eating dinner with their families? And what's on their plate (or TV screen or iPod) when they do?

One thing that makes this poll different from others is that it's based on a random sample of children, even though adults in the households answered the questions. In order to be sure the findings are representative of children across the country, we needed this random sample of kids.

It's an important distinction.

In a traditional poll, the research team telephones a random selection of households and asks to speak with a randomly selected adult in the household. Here, the team telephoned a random selection of households with children and asked to speak with an adult about a randomly selected kid in the household.

Another difference is that the polling team went beyond interviews with parents. In each case, we interviewed an adult in the household who actually knows what the child does and eats. Another caregiver — rather than a parent — might know that best. This approach allowed us to make sure that kids living in many kinds of households are included.

For most kids, the adult who knows what they eat and what they're doing in terms of activities does turn out to be a parent. But for some kids, the adult who knows is a grandmother, a foster parent, an uncle or even an adult sibling. We call the respondents "parents" in our reports for simplicity, and we make a note about this in the complete description of our polling methods.

Lastly, this poll asks about specifics, not about generalizations. We ask about what happened on the day before the polling team called.

We know people sometimes have a hard time remembering what they (or their children) did over longer periods of time, so asking about a specific day can help give a more accurate picture.

To make sure the day before is part of the school week, we only called people Tuesday through Saturday. In addition, we asked about the time from 3 p.m. to bedtime rather than school hours. We thought 3 p.m. to bedtime was a time when many parents or caregivers of kids in a broad range of ages could more reasonably be expected to know what the child was eating, drinking or doing.

These polling techniques allowed us to create a poll that gives a unique window on the issue of children, weight and the childhood obesity epidemic. Hopefully it gives listeners and readers new insights into this important issue facing America today.

This story is part of the series On The Run: How Families Struggle To Eat Well And Exercise. The series is based on a poll from NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health. If you want to dive deeper, here's a summary of the poll findings, plus the topline data and charts.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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