The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

When it Comes to Health, Dads Matter

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.

Interview with Dr. Amy Mobley

Assistant Professor, Department of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Connecticut and co-author of the recent study, Investigating the Relationship of Body Mass Index, Diet Quality, and Physical Activity Level between Fathers and Their Preschool-Aged Children.

What inspired you to look at dads in particular?

Several years ago, Dr. Rachel Vollmer and I were conducting research interviews with mothers of young children for a childhood obesity prevention project and started discussing the need to also include fathers because they were often accompanying their children or partner. At the same time, I became a parent myself and started recognizing the impact that my husband had on my daughter’s food intake and physical activity level. I was then surprised at how little research there was on fathers in relation to childhood obesity prevention.

Why have previous studies focused more on the relationship between mother and child and health influences?

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 in the past.

Why was there significant influence from vigorous activity but none at all for sedentary or light-to-moderate activity?

We found this interesting as well. While the measure that we used to assess physical activity was not perfect, 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.

If fathers are open to advice but not receiving it, could practitioners be missing key opportunities in obesity prevention?

Yes, 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.

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, how dramatically could we improve outcomes by adding fathers to obesity prevention models?

Right now we are unsure of the magnitude and are hoping to test the impact of a full-scale intervention to provide more knowledge to the field about this very topic. We firmly believe based on our research that there will be an important impact, but we do not have the data yet to estimate that impact.

What are the next steps in this line of research? What is the future of this research?

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.