Three years ago, writer Mackenzie Pearson coined the term “dad bod” to describe the physique of former college frat boys sporting middle-aged beer guts. Pearson’s “Why Girls Love the Dad Bod” turned dads’ love handles from health indictment to endearing distinction — dad bod has been forgiven, and even celebrated. But when a dad-to-be sports a dad bod, studies suggest the extra weight can be downright unhealthy — both for himself, and for his future children.
Of course, there is no scientific definition of the dad bod. That said, central to the description is belly fat or a “beer belly,” which indicates the presence of visceral fat around the organs. A waist circumference above 40 inches would be considered a beer belly, in men, and this is associated with increased mortality and heart disease. But dad bod is also typified by a lack of muscle definition. So it’s also safe to say that a man with dad bod may be less likely to exercise. And both of lack of exercise and presence of belly fat can have health implications for a man’s children.
A 2017 study in the journal Cell Metabolism looked at how a man’s weight might affect the genetic information in his sperm. Researchers discovered that weight loss changed sperm cell DNA, and that research was corroborated in a mouse study published this October in the journal Diabetes. Researchers from Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center examined the offspring of sedentary mice and mice who were allowed to exercise freely. They found that even with a high-fat diet the mice that were allowed to exercise had offspring that were better able to manage their weight. Sedentary mouse-dads, on the other hand, had offspring with decreased metabolic health.
Granted these were studies done at the cellular level and in mice, with all the limitations of non-human research. But several studies suggest that overweight human parents are more likely to have overweight children, too. A 2011 study published in the International Journal of Obesity analyzed 3,000 two-parent families and found that the chances of a child becoming overweight quadrupled when a mother was normal weight and a father was overweight. A more contemporaneous study in 2018 looked at the BMIs of 2,000 randomly selected infants. Researched found that overweight fathers had “a small but significant and continuous impact on child’s postpartum growth.”
The mechanisms for these outcomes make sense. According to a study recently published in the journal Pediatrics looking into the importance of recruiting dads into family health programs, fathers have a tendency to play in much more active and physical ways with their children. That highly physical play helps children regulate their weight. Also, when fathers are modeling appropriate dietary habits, children have a tendency to pick up on those habits.
Men who are cultivating their dad bods, however, are unlikely to engage in as much physical play. At the same time, they are likely to normalize an unhealthy weight and model poor nutritional habits for their children. Essentially, the problem with the celebration of the dad bod is that it can increase the chances that a child becomes obese. And when children are obese, they are at risk of cardiovascular disease, osteoarthritis, certain cancers, and diabetes, well into adulthood.
So, while love handles may be a humorous symbol of middle-age fatherhood, the implications for children’s health are far from funny. Maybe it’s time we stop laughing at dad bod.