When it Comes to Health, Dads Matter
Health and Wellness
June 25, 2015
From barbeques to car shows, thanking dad for all he does on Father’s Day has become an important annual ritual. Now we can thank dad for one more very important thing. It turns out that dads, and what they eat and how much they exercise, have a direct relationship to the healthy lifestyle habits of their children.
A recent study from the University of Connecticut and published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that a father’s body weight, diet quality, and vigorous physical activity level may have a strong relationship to his preschool-aged child’s. This study consisted of one-on-one interviews with fathers of preschool-aged children (aged three to five years old). To be eligible, biological fathers were required to regularly eat one meal per week with their child.
Previous studies have found that children with overweight parents are more likely to become overweight themselves. But interestingly, most of these studies have examined the relationship between mothers and their children, not tending to focus on the father’s influence. Researchers wanted to focus on fathers in this study, because if fathers have an important influence on the health choices of their children, then they should be an important part of any obesity intervention program.
“Mothers have typically been identified as a child’s primary gatekeeper especially for dietary intake. And while mothers still remain heavily invested in the caretaking of children, the role of fathers has changed over time with many more involved in child feeding and other related responsibilities than they have been in the past,” says study co-author Dr. Amy Mobley. (Read our full interview with Dr. Mobley here)
Mobley found that there was a significant positive relationship between the vigorous physical activity levels of dads and their kids, but no relationship was found between a father’s sedentary activity or light-to-moderate physical activity. Since vigorous activity has been shown to lower BMI, blood pressure and waist circumference, this finding is critical.
“We hypothesize that dads may engage in more vigorous physical activity with their kids such as rough and tumble play (i.e. wrestling). Other studies have also found that dads enjoy engaging in this type of play with their young children,” says Mobley.
There was also a significant positive relationship between the diets of dads and children. If health professionals want to change the diets of young children, this study suggests that they should consider improving the diets of the fathers too.
Understanding this relationship between fathers and their children is crucial to developing healthy programs, and this was the first study to examine the relationship between dads and their kids as it pertains to BMI, overall diet quality and physical activity among a sample of U.S. fathers.
“There are untapped opportunities to reach fathers in relation to feeding their children and improving physical activity levels. Often times, fathers are not targeted for outreach about their children and are otherwise ignored, considering many practitioners assume that mom is responsible for the food in the house, meal prep, or feeding the child. This is a perfect opportunity for practitioners to intervene,” says Mobley.
Children at this young, influential age really rely on their parents to model healthy behaviors for eating and physical activity for the rest of their lives. Based on the results of this study, adding fathers to obesity prevention models could improve outcomes dramatically.
“Our next steps are to secure grant funding to test the impact of a father-focused childhood obesity intervention. An Australian team of researchers led by Dr. Philip Morgan has been successful at targeting fathers of older children in the past for physical activity and dietary related improvements as well as weight loss in fathers. We hope to add new knowledge to the field specific to low-income fathers of preschool age children living in the United States,” adds Mobley.