Whether it’s roughhousing in the family room, encouraging “safe” risk taking on the playground, or playing yet another game of ball in the backyard, dads parent in a wonderfully different way than moms...and we’re learning that that’s a very good thing for a family’s health.
You see, when it comes to raising a happy family with healthy, thriving kids, society has traditionally put the brunt of the responsibility on mom—as the parent generally accountable for most of the grocery shopping and cooking in the household, and for making the bulk of the food and activity choices for her kids.
Fortunately, the last 20-30 years have seen a major shift in societal roles as dads have become increasingly more involved in every aspect of childrearing, from arranging playdates and volunteering at school to cooking, cleaning, and shopping. And there’s no doubt that involved dads make for happier, more well-adjusted kids, but research now shows that healthy dads are the key to raising healthy kids.
Kids’ Food Choices Mirror Their Dads
While mom used to be the parent making all the family food choices, now more than 52% of fathers claim to be the primary grocery shoppers in their household.1 Why does this matter? Well, not only are dads more than twice as likely to get tons of input from their family members when they shop (“Dad, can I PLEASE have this?”), but it turns out that dads’ food choices have a big impact on their kids’ dietary preferences.
In one study of 50 dads and their children, researchers found that the kids’ intake of certain types of nutrient-poor foods (like potato chips and cookies) were related to how much of these foods their fathers ate. In other words, the more of these processed junk foods the dads consumed, the more the kids consumed.2 Fortunately, there is a silver lining: the kids’ fruit intake also mirrored that of their dads, so bring on the apples!
Another groundbreaking survey of over 300 families with kids aged 9-15 showed that the more often fathers ate in fast food restaurants, the more likely their kids were to favor eating fast food as well.3 You’re probably thinking, “wait a minute...don’t all pre-teens and teenagers crave nutrient-devoid fast food?”
True, it’s easy to assume that kids’ diets at this age are less than ideal no matter what their dads eat, but here’s where it gets interesting: it turns out that fathers’ influences on their kids’ eating habits and choices actually start much sooner, as early as 20 months of age! In fact, research indicates that—even for toddlers not yet two years old—kids follow their dad’s lead when it comes to their fruit, vegetable, sweet snack, and take-away food and sugary drink choices. In addition, young children with overweight fathers are more likely to eat more (often unhealthy) take-out foods.4
Dads, It’s Time to Move It, Move It
It’s clear that dads have a big influence on their kids’ nutritional choices, but what about other aspects of health—like physical activity? Well, dads tow the line there, too. Kids with active mothers are two times more likely to be physically active as those with non-active moms, but children with active fathers are 3.5 times as likely to engage in physical activity than kids with sedentary dads (Bonus: the statistic jumps to 5.8 times more likely for kids with two active parents!).5
What’s more, researchers have found several positive associations between dads with healthy diets, healthy BMIs, and vigorous activity levels, and their kids’ diets, weight, and activity preferences.6
But, did you know that being fit and of a healthy weight aren’t just important health factors for dads during the busy couple decades of childrearing? Indeed, being healthy is crucial for dads even before conception! In the fascinating science of epigenetics (the study of heritable changes in gene expression), scientists are discovering that epigenetic markers—which control how genes are turned off or on—in a man’s sperm change depending on if he carries excess weight or not.7
What does this mean? Well, if a dad-to-be is overweight at the time of conception, his sperm can deliver the same overweight “instructions” to the fertilized egg, predisposing his child to weight challenges and associated eating behaviors later in life. The good news? Weight loss can change up to 9,000 of these genetic markers in just one year, so it’s never too late to start dropping a few pounds!
Emotions Matter, Too
Being physically healthy is a critical component of parenting for both moms and dads, but emotional health carries just as much weight in a healthy family.
We all know how stressful parenting can be, but research shows that dads who are continually stressed and in a low mood can have significant negative effects on their children—even years down the line. In fact, not only does a dad’s parenting-related stress affect his toddler’s cognitive and language development, but it can lead to behavior problems and can have long-term effects on his kids’ emotional and social skills (such as cooperation and self-control).8
And, being there emotionally for their kids is key: dads have a big job when it comes to teaching their children to be caring, kind human beings. In a 26-year study, results showed that the single most influential factor in determining a person’s empathy in adulthood was how much time their father spent with them in childhood.9
How to Be a Healthy, Happy Dad
We now know the staggering influence that dads have on their kids’ physical and emotional health, with effects that can last a lifetime. It’s not just about being involved; it’s about being the best, happiest, healthiest father that you can possibly be.
Dads, here are our four tips to help you live your healthiest days!
Involved, present, and loving fathers play such an amazing, central role in their kids’ upbringing, but moms often get the bulk of the credit. Dads, it’s finally time for you to get the commendation you deserve, so you can feel empowered to make the best choices for your own—and consequently your children’s—long-term health and happiness!
1. Cone Communications. (2012). 2012 Cone Year of the Dad Trend Tracker. Retrieved from http://www.conecomm.com/research-blog/2012-cone-year-of-the-dad-trend-tracker#download-research.
2. Hall, L., Collins, C. E., Morgan, P. J., Burrows, T. L., Lubans, D. R., & Callister, R. (2011). Childrens Intake of Fruit and Selected Energy-Dense Nutrient-Poor Foods Is Associated with Fathers Intake. Journal of the American Dietetic Association,111(7), 1039-1044. doi:10.1016/j.jada.2011.04.008
3. Mcintosh, A., Kubena, K. S., Tolle, G., Dean, W., Kim, M., Jan, J., & Anding, J. (2011). Determinants of Childrens Use of and Time Spent in Fast-food and Full-service Restaurants. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior,43(3), 142-149. doi:10.1016/j.jneb.2010.04.002
4. Walsh, A. D., Cameron, A. J., Hesketh, K. D., Crawford, D., & Campbell, K. J. (2015). Associations between dietary intakes of first-time fathers and their 20-month-old children are moderated by fathers’ BMI, education and age. British Journal of Nutrition,114(06), 988-994. doi:10.1017/s0007114515002755
5. Moore, L. L., Lombardi, D. A., White, M. J., Campbell, J. L., Oliveria, S. A., & Ellison, R. C. (1991). Influence of parents physical activity levels on activity levels of young children. The Journal of Pediatrics,118(2), 215-219. doi:10.1016/s0022-3476(05)80485-8
6. Vollmer, R. L., Adamsons, K., Gorin, A., Foster, J. S., & Mobley, A. R. (2015). Investigating the Relationship of Body Mass Index, Diet Quality, and Physical Activity Level between Fathers and Their Preschool-Aged Children. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics,115(6), 919-926. doi:10.1016/j.jand.2014.12.003
7. Donkin, I., Versteyhe, S., Ingerslev, L., Qian, K., Mechta, M., Nordkap, L., . . . Barrès, R. (2016). Obesity and Bariatric Surgery Drive Epigenetic Variation of Spermatozoa in Humans. (2), 369-378. doi:10.1016/j.cmet.2015.11.004
8. Harewood, T., Vallotton, C. D., & Brophy-Herb, H. (2016). More than Just the Breadwinner: The Effects of Fathers’ Parenting Stress on Children’s Language and Cognitive Development. Infant and Child Development,26(2). doi:10.1002/icd.1984
9. Koestner, R., Franz, C., & Weinberger, J. (1990). The family origins of empathic concern: A 26-year longitudinal study. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,58(4), 709-717. doi:10.1037//0022-35188.8.131.529