Dad has Big Impact on Diet of Child

Dad's choice of where to eat could literally tip the scales on his child's health, according to children's diaries and study.

According to a Texas AgriLife Research study, a father's use of restaurants and his perception of family meals carry more weight with a child than a mother’s.

The study discovered that the level of importance a father places on meal time can determine a child’s eating behavior. "Dads who think that dinner time is a special family time certainly do not see a fast-food restaurant as an appropriate place for that special family time, so this means that his kids are spending less time in those places,” said Dr. Alex McIntosh, AgriLife Research sociologist.

As such, a father carries an important role when it comes to childhood obesity. “Dads who have no trouble eating food in a fast-food restaurant are going to be more likely to have kids who do so,” continued McIntosh.

The study began as a fifteen-month investigation into a parents' use of time and how that impacted meal choices. The researchers focused on the difference between fast-food and full-service restaurants, as countless previous studies have shown a correlation between fast-food consumption and weight gain.

The research, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was particularly focused on parental choice of restaurants as a connection to childhood obesity, McIntosh said.

According to researchers, the idea to ask the children in the participating families to keep a diary of what they ate and whether it was at home or out came almost as an afterthought.

"It never occurred to me that we would have data on them eating out and where they were eating out. But the kids — if they said they ate out, they always wrote down where they ate by the name of the restaurant," McIntosh reported. "So it was just a matter of tracking down information about the restaurant to find out if they were full-service or more like a fast-food place."

According to McIntosh, this afterthought request of the children to keep a diary was where the study got the bulk of its important data.

"We had been analyzing the data for a long time when it occurred to us that because the kids had done such a great job in their time diaries that we would actually be able to distinguish between a meal at a fast-food restaurant versus a meal at a full-service restaurant," McIntosh noted. "And somewhat to our surprise, it was father's time spent at fast-food restaurants — not mother's time spent there — that was associated with kids' time spent in a fast-food place."

"For a long time fathers have been told that they need to spend more time with their children. But often when this message is being transmitted, the message is 'you should be having fun with your children,'" the research stated.

McIntosh said the message to fathers should instead relate something along the lines of the responsibility the share with mothers to raise healthy, well-adjusted children. Also, McIntosh add, fathers need to be more aware of the nutritional content of fast food.

There were instances when a lax mother’s use of fast-food restaurants impacted her children, but those instances were only when a mother was neglectful and/or was highly committed to her career, McIntosh said.

"So mothers are not unimportant when it comes to eating out choices," he said, "but in terms of statistical findings, the father findings are stronger.

"Traditionally academics have blamed mothers for everything that goes wrong with children, especially when it comes to food," McIntosh continued. "But I think it's pretty clear that fathers have a substantial influence over what children are eating. And if that's the case, then they need to be the target of education just like mothers."

This education could help a father change some of his own food choices when at a fast-food restaurant with his family, or at least have an effect on what restaurants they choose to go to, McIntosh said.

"When I mention these findings in class, my students say they can fully understand, because when they're with dad, he gives them choices," said McIntosh, who also is a professor in the recreation, parks and tourism sciences department at Texas A&M University. "They are the ones who get to choose where to eat or, if they are in a grocery store, what to buy as a snack.”

The importance of a healthy diet as a child is lost on virtually no one—healthy eating and nutrition are essential for developing bodies, not to mention childhood obesity can lead to health problems further down the road, such as diabetes, heart problems, high blood pressure, and other associated health issues.

"All you really need is a dad who says, 'no, I think we ought to eat someplace else and this is why,'" McIntosh concluded. "It's about a father taking more of a responsible role when he's parenting."

This study was published recently in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.