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Do Dads Undermine Healthy Food Choices? Probably Not.

A new study claims dads make bad nutritional choices, based on a study of 14 dads in the Bay Area.

Fathers can get in the way of the healthy food choices moms make, according to a new—and incredibly flawed—study. Writing in the journal Appetite, researcher Priya Fielding-Singh claims that fathers can “undermine mothers’ efforts to provision healthy diets for their children,” by looking to unhealthy, convenient food options as their meal-time go-to. And while that assertion certainly plays into eye-rolling fatherhood stereotypes, it’s unlikely representative of American dads as a whole. Especially since the study only involved 14 dads living in one region.

“Fatherhood is very diverse. There’s a kaleidoscope of what fathers do and feel,” family researcher William Marsiglio, who was not involved in Fielding-Singh’s study, told Fatherly. “Without having nationally representative data to explore these issues, one relies on anecdotal comments and digging into the possibility of what goes on in some men’s lives.”

To understand why Fielding-Singh’s conclusions may be a less-than-solid indicator of U.S. dads’ approach to feeding the family, it helps to understand the structure and sample population of her study. Fielding-Singh conducted in-depth interviews of 109 subjects, which sounds like a robust sample. That said, those subjects came from only 44 families in the San Francisco Bay area. Of these family participants, 42 were moms, 14 were dads, and 53 were teens. It’s should be a red flag when study authors (and journalists) draw any conclusions about fatherhood from a sample of 14 fathers.

But even if the researchers had dug up dirt on more than 14 dads, it would have been a problematic study. Because all of the families surveyed lived in the San Francisco Bay area—a small region with specific demographics that is hardly representative of national health norms. It ranks solidly in Forbes top 10 healthiest cities in the U.S., with nearly a quarter of all residents getting five servings of fruits and veg a day. So it’s quite possible that the choices made by a Bay Area dads could be considered “unhealthy” by local standards, especially given the study’s subjective survey questions.

Besides, larger studies have reflected a more mixed bag when it comes to dad-initiated diets. Marsiglio himself performed in-depth qualitative interviews of fathers for his book Dads, Kids, and Fitness: A Father’s Guide to Family Health, and found that “there were plenty of fathers I interviewed who were, by my estimation, at least recently conscientious about the healthy choices they were making for their kids.” Not that this work is any more definitive, Marsiglio cautions. Nothing short of a large, nationally-representative study could fill that void—and none exist.

Speaking of which, the few studies that do exist regarding dads and food have largely looked into dads who do not live with their families. One such study from 2007 found, that when non-resident dads were involved with their children, the likelihood that children would eat breakfast and lunch along with servings of vegetable actually increased.

Study or not, dads certainly have a reputation for making unhealthy food choices, and Fielding-Singh speculates in her study that part of that may be due to the fact that dads traditionally do not embrace grocery shopping or planning family meals. Food work is gendered, she found, and dads tend to assume they’ll fail to meet mom’s exacting nutritional standards, so when it’s their turn to feed the kids they resign themselves to TV dinners and chocolate bars.

Of course, there are likely plenty of men who continue to resign themselves to Homer Simpson meal plans and studiously avoid the grocery store, and here Fielding-Singh has a point. But even that is rapidly changing. The 2012 General Social Survey suggests both men and women now overwhelmingly say that the task of buying food is shared equally between partners. And a large study that examined the shopping habits of nearly 90,000 dads since 2013 found evidence of a marked increase in men purchasing groceries for family dinners, especially among millennial fathers.

“We need the social and psychological aspect of fathers to be there,” Marsiglio says. “We’re on the right trajectory of getting men to nurture their children and developing the expectation that’s what dads should do.”