New Research: Fathers Have Outsize Influence on Their Children's Eating Habits

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • The old saying went “Like father, like son.”  But in the case of diets, a father may have an outsize influence on both his sons’ and daughters’ eating habits.

    A new study by Texas A&M researchers found that fathers’ decisions concerning the frequency and restaurant choice for eating out, the types of food they ate, and willingness to participate in family meal times may be a critical factor in the children’s food choices (which can be important as the younger generation struggles with childhood obesity).

    “We undertook the study because people are interested in how parents affect children’s eating habits and obesity, and I’ve always felt that there was too much attention paid to mothers, and we ought to be looking at fathers every time we look at mothers,” lead researcher Dr. Alex McIntosh told ABC News. The researchers studied the dining habits of 320 families in the Houston area and selected one child from each family who were between the ages of 9 and 11 or between the ages of 13-15. The scientists also took the parents’ and children’s body mass index measurements, information about daily activities, and surveyed participants about demographics, home life and ideas about meals and nutrition.

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    The changing family roles may play a role in these findings. ABC News reported that Karen Ansel, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, stated, "For years, we've heard that moms have the biggest impact on their kids' food choices, but with mothers becoming more involved in the workplace and fathers' roles becoming more involved in caregiving at home, it's natural that kids will start to follow their father's lead, too.”

    The Texas A&M researchers found:

    • Fathers’ perceptions of dinner were critical in where dinner is actually held, whereas mothers’ perceptions did not have the same effect. “The more fathers feel that dinner is important, the less likely they will eat at a fast food restaurant,” McIntosh, a Texas A&M AgriLife sociologist, told the Bryan-College Station Eagle.
    • Fathers’ decisions to eat at fast-food and full-service restaurants influenced how often their children wanted to eat at those types of restaurants. “Fathers have greater influence in the consumption of fast food than mothers do,” McIntyre said. “When a father is more likely to eat it, the child is more likely.”
    • Fathers are more likely than mothers to opt for fast food restaurants when eating out with their children. The researchers suspect that this is due to the fathers wanting to make children happy whereas mothers tend to focus on encouraging sound nutritionally choices.
    • Fathers’ personal preference may be a key factor since they tend to determine where and when the family goes out to eat. (In my own experience, this makes sense. During my childhood, I remember that Dad was the one who most often determined the choice of restaurant with Mom taking the back seat in the decision. My brother and I got a say in this choice primarily on our birthdays.)
    • Fathers who excessively eat fast food and who don’t participate in many daily exercises often influence their children’s diet and activity level.

    So what can fathers do to make a different? Here are my thoughts:

    • First of all, fathers can start picking sit-down restaurants instead of fast-food options. And even if they do take their children to a fast-food restaurant, fathers can encouraging their children to select the healthier fare (and should serve as a role model by ordering these healthier meals as well.)
    • Fathers can start learning about nutrition issues, which will help them become more discerning customers as more restaurant chains start making this information readily available.
    • Fathers can start cooking meals with their children, thus having fun and eating in. The father can bond with his children during the preparation (which can be lots of fun – build a pizza, anyone?). And all family members get the benefit of a healthier meal and quality family time.
    • Fathers need to really stop and analyze their own activity level and see how they can involve their children in these activities. Summer is an ideal time to do this, what with the longer days and summer vacations.

    Fathers really need to embrace the influence they have on their children’s diet and activity levels. By taking these actions, they can help their children celebrate Father’s Day all year long.

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Published On: June 23, 2011

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