Sins of the father: heavier dads mean overweight kids

Research has found having an overweight father quadruples the chances of kids being overweight. Conor Ashleigh

The increase in childhood obesity over the last few decades is frightening. Clearly fresh thinking is needed. New evidence of father’s impact on children’s weight gain may point us toward novel approaches that work for the family. They may even be fun.

Twenty years ago, men in the Hunter Valley Steelworks were the inspiration for a new approach to weight loss, one that targeted men. Based on conversations with these big-bellied blue collar workers, standard diet-based programs designed for women were completely revamped.

The first Gutbusters programs were born using men-talk and the logic of trade off (schooners for exercise) rather than diets and denial.

Now, men’s weight is again in the spotlight. But this time, it’s not the men but their children’s kilos that are the worry.

Girth of fathers

An analysis of over 3,000 two-parent Australian families found that having an overweight father (but a normal weight mother) quadrupled the chances of children becoming overweight.

The reverse situation, an overweight mum but a normal-weight dad, didn’t significantly raise children’s risk of being overweight. The effect of an overweight father was the same for boys and girls.

The research, which was reported in the International Journal of Obesity last month, used a representative sample of families to measure children’s change of weight from around four to five years of age to when they were eight or nine.

The finding that fathers and not mothers are the key to children being overweight is surprising. After all, mothers are the main suppliers of nutrition for children. Surely dads making comments about “rabbit food” can’t have all that much influence.

Conor Ashleigh

Even in terms of exercise, the other major lifestyle factor in obesity, mothers spend more time with their children and so have more chance to influence their play.

Unfortunately, because we’ve been so fixed on mothers’ influence on children’s growth, we have little data on how fathers model eating and exercise, limit or promote unhealthy foods and contribute to family exercise patterns.

There is, however, some good news on enlisting fathers to change their weight while being more active with their children. And interestingly, the success of the approach seems to take heed of the lessons from Gutbusters.

What’s more, it’s being developed in the same region.

Helping out

Overweight fathers and their primary school-aged children from the Hunter Valley have been attending a Healthy Dads Healthy Kids program where they not only learn about calories but practice fun-type physical games with their sons and daughters.

The program is taught by men using male-friendly language and an emphasis on fathers as role models – do it for your family.

For the children, the rough and tumble segments are the highlight. For the dads, seeing the energy and enjoyment of their children is a push to do more at home.

Results of the pilot trial were excellent – dads lost weight and the children became more active. The program is now being rolled out across the coal mining region of the Hunter Valley, an area with high rates of overweight men and children.

Overweight children and adults start their eating and exercise patterns early in life. The family, and on the evidence that we now have, the fathers, will be crucial if we are to reverse the childhood obesity epidemic.