Healthy eating habits for children: Study examines roles fathers play

Childhood obesity is a growing health issue in the United States, leading to greater risks of having chronic medical conditions such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Healthy eating habits are a key factor in reducing childhood obesity, yet many children consume too few fruits and vegetables and too many sugary drinks. Instilling healthy eating habits in early childhood is crucial, and parents play a central role by modeling healthy behaviors and selecting the foods they make available at home.

However, most research has focused primarily on the role mothers play in eating habits, leaving a knowledge gap about how fathers affect their children’s eating behaviors.

In a new study published in the American Journal of Men’s Health, Matthew Lee Smith, co-director of the Texas A&M Center for Population Health and Aging and associate professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at the School of Public Health, and Ledric Sherman, assistant professor in the Department of Health and Kinesiology Department, College of Education and Human Development, examined the influence African-American fathers have on their children. Previous research has found a correlation between fathers gaining weight and weight gain in their children, which suggests fathers significantly effect eating habits. Still, the few studies examining paternal influence on children’s diets have focused mostly on European or European American fathers.

Smith and Sherman used data from focus groups of African-American fathers in rural east Texas communities. The focus groups centered on how fathers perceive their role in their children’s health, who fathers believe should be responsible for children’s health behaviors, the topics fathers think are important and the barriers fathers encounter related to promoting healthy behaviors in their children.

After analyzing information from these focus groups, the researchers found that these fathers considered diet to be the most important issue for their children. Further in-depth examination found that responses fell into three categories: teaching by example, expense of healthy eating and issues related to cooking and eating at home.

The fathers in the study overwhelmingly said they saw that they should talk to their children about healthy eating and act as a model for healthy behaviors as well as limiting unhealthy food consumption and providing a balanced diet. Many fathers pointed to the fast pace of daily life and limited time as being obstacles for healthy diets and noted how children will follow the dietary examples set by their parents.

Another barrier for healthy eating discussed in the focus groups was the financial cost related to healthy eating. Many of the participants thought that some parents had to buy cheaper and less healthful options and that fresh fruits and vegetables were too expensive for some parents. They also noted how fresh food’s limited shelf life can lead to wasted money when spoiled food is thrown out.

The third area the fathers identified was how important cooking and eating at home is for maintaining healthy habits. Cooking at home not only enables the family to eat healthier foods, it reduces the likelihood of fast food consumption. However, the fathers in the focus groups noted that cooking and eating at home was not always achievable.

The findings of this work show that African-American fathers see their roles in promoting healthy eating habits in their children centering on modeling healthy behaviors and in talking about food consumption. Focus group responses point to a need for better tools for discussing healthy eating with their children and making household dietary changes such as planning and preparing meals. The responses also identified a need to make healthier foods available and affordable for all families with efforts to promote less expensive and easier-to-prepare options.

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