You Are What Your Dad Eats

Finding ways to get children physically active and eating healthy is a challenge for many Canadian parents, whether they are moms or dads.  National data shows that over 70% of Canadian children do not eat enough fruits and vegetables and 80% of 3- to 4-year-olds exceed the recommendations for time watching or playing on screens.

Research suggests that parents are the primary influence on young children’s eating and activity behaviours, yet we pay little attention to the impact fathers have on their children’s health. Most research in this area has focused almost exclusively on the influence of mothers on their children.

So, if studies show parents are major factors in their children’s eating and activity behaviours, why are we paying so little attention to fathers’ roles?

Since the mid-1970s:

  • The number of dual-earner families with children in Canada has almost doubled from 36% in 1976 to 68% in 2014.
  • The number of stay-at-home dads increased from 2% in 1976 to 11% in 2014.
  • In 2011, over 20% of children in single parent families lived with their dad.

Given these significant demographic household shifts, a father’s role is a big missing part of the family picture.

Emerging research shows that fathers are critical stakeholders in the development of children’s health behaviours. Studies in Australia and the USA have found strong associations between fathers’ eating and activity habits and that of their children, suggesting the strong influence of fathers’ role modeling. Our own research with Canadian families found that fathers’, not mothers’, modeling of healthy food intake was associated with healthier dietary intake among their children.  These results underscore the need to understand fathers’ role in the development of children’s health behaviours.

A study conducted at the University of Newcastle in Australia that followed 8-9 year olds over four years found that children who had a father with obesity and a mother with a healthy weight at baseline were 10 times more likely to develop obesity at follow-up compared to children who had two parents without obesity. The same numbers aren’t true for mothers with obesity.

Another study, conducted at the Quebec Centre for Longitudinal Studies, found that the odds of having obesity at age 7 doubled among children who had fathers with obesity, while there was no association between the mothers’ weight and the weight of their sons.

A key question that arises from these studies is how much of the influence of fathers on their sons’ health is genetic and what is related to environmental or behavioral factors. This too has been under-studied and needs to be researched if we are to make progress on children’s health.

While we wait for more research to take place, what can fathers and families do to solve the eating and activity dilemma families face?

At the minimum, fathers need to be made aware of their impact on their children’s health with the goal of motivating them to take care of their own health in an effort to influence that of their children. Small steps like introducing a daily physical activity that they can enjoy with their child, or making fruit and vegetables their   go-to choice for snacks are manageable and can be taken on as a family unit. The results: a legacy of healthier families and a healthier Canada.


 Jess Haines is a registered dietitian and an Associate Professor of Applied Nutrition at the University of Guelph. She is also the Associate Director of the Guelph Family Health Study, a family study aimed at understanding how factors in early life are associated with the development of chronic disease.

Dr. Haines graciously wrote this article on behalf of the Canadian Men’s Health Foundation.