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How Father Figures Prevent Childhood Obesity in the Black Community

Father figures who take on paternal roles can decrease childhood obesity risks, study says.

Black boys in the U.S. have a reduced risk childhood obesity when they grow up with father figures, new research reveals. The study in question focuses on black male children and attempts to understand why they have been only demographic to see a significant rise in obesity levels over the past decade. The answer, it seems, has to do with access to male role models and paternal figures.

“When I spoke with other experts in the field, many held a shared disbelief about the rise in obesity rates,” study author Ailton Coleman, a postdoctoral research fellow at The Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education, told Fatherly. “I realized that I needed to join other champions in drawing attention to growing rate of obesity among young boys and become proactive in identifying potential solutions. “

Black boys have been the only ethnic group in America between the ages of two and 19 to experience such a spike in obesity rates between 1999 and 2010. To explain this, Coleman and his colleagues had to take a second look at the structure of black families. Since the Moynihan Report was issued by the U.S. Department of Labor in 1965, social science research on black families has been informed by the assumption that many of the problems in the black community are a result of paternal absenteeism, not systemic economic discrimination. As a result, many child-development studies about the father-child relationship have been skewed. Coleman got around this by considering the effects of father figures as well as fathers.

“When you talk about children, you constantly hear ‘It takes a village!’ but what does that mean and what impact does that have?” Coleman says. “This study looks at the who, the what, and the why.”

To accomplish that, Coleman and his team analyzed data from 563 adolescent boys ages 13 to 17 to self-identified as black, obtained from the National Survey of American Life—Adolescents. Specifically, Coleman scrutinized participants’ BMI, leisure time, level of paternal closeness, and family structure. Subject were divided into two groups: boys raised by fathers, both resident and non-resident, and boys raised by another paternal male figure or “social fathers.”

Results revealed that boys with fathers had similar obesity levels as boys with social fathers, 19.2 percent compared to 20.6 percent. However, boys with social fathers actually reported greater levels of paternal closeness than boys in father-present households, 49.2 percent compared to 46.1 percent. And after researchers controlled for age, income, ethnicity, and leisure time physical activity results revealed that higher levels of paternal closeness predicted lower BMIs for boys with social fathers alone.

“My research shows that it’s not just biological fathers who can have this impact, but any man who takes on the responsibility of caring for and raising another person,” Coleman says.

Coleman notes that childhood obesity has many causes like irresponsible advertising and a lack of fresh fruits and vegetables in poor neighborhoods, and absent fathers should not be blamed for the rise in obesity. Still, learning more about the role positive paternal figures play in preventing it may help correct this disparity. Boys who have men in their lives that they can talk to about their feelings are less likely to eat emotionally and find better ways to cope, Coleman suspects. They have involved fathers and social fathers are more likely to participate in physical activity, and potentially play harder if they know someone is in the stands, and this is good for most kids for obvious reasons.

“The larger impact is that this effect may not be limited to biological fathers,” says Coleman. “This effect may be present for all fathers, biological and social, across races and ethnicities.”