Fathers worried about their kids becoming overweight might want to spend more time with them, a new study suggests. While past research from the American Academy of Pediatrics found that fathers with hefty dad bods are more likely to have obese kids, this is one of the first studies to suggest that a father’s parenting techniques can influence whether his children gain weight.
“We didn’t know whether fathers’ general caregiving matters,” coauthor on the study Michelle S. Wong, Ph.D. candidate at Johns Hopkins University, told Fatherly. Wong and her team resolved to change that. “We examined a broader range of activities related to raising children, including general caregiving and influence on decision-making.”
Specifically, Wong and colleagues analyzed data describing 3,900 kids and fathers, obtained from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study Birth Cohort. Dads who were involved in physical child care tasks, such as playing outside or giving their kids baths, were 30 percent less likely have obese children between the ages of 2 and 4. The data also suggested that dads can decrease the risk of their kids becoming obese by helping with indirect tasks, such as preparing meals, but this was not statistically significant.
The data did not include information about mothers’ caregiving techniques and details about the quality of fathers’ involvement, so the study has its limitations. One of the biggest concerns with the dataset is that it’s based on self-reporting. “It’s possible that some dads over or underestimated their involvement with their children,” says Rachel Blaine assistant professor of nutrition and dietetics at California State University, who was not involved in the study but has conducted past research on childhood obesity. She recommends that future studies focus on exploring new ways to verify parent activity levels, beyond self-reporting.
Kirsten Davison, an associate professor of nutrition at Harvard who was not involved in this study previously reported that fathers are all but absent from the literature on childhood obesity, hails the study as a step in the right direction. But she adds that future studies should focus less on whether fathers matter, and more on why they do. “Research needs to look at the causal pathway, the steps of how thing could be playing out,” Davison says. “That’s where the action might be.”
Regardless, both Wong, Blaine and Davison say that the research’s refreshing focus on dads—a notoriously understudied population—may be even more exciting than the results. The real win is that a large scientific study on fathers happened at all. “Fathers have become more involved with raising their children,” Wong says “Yet research in this area hasn’t kept pace with these changes.”
Davison suspects this is because researchers assume dads defer to moms when it comes to answering questions about parenting and participating in scientific studies on the subject. “I’ve found this isn’t the case,” she says. “You just have to make it about fathers.”