If you’re waiting for the perfect time to put away the junk food and bring more vegetables to the table, now might be it — new studies are finding that parents directly influence the eating habits of their children, particularly during the earliest stages of life. Though both parents will play a role in deciding when their child will eat and what types of food and nutritional options will be provided daily, you may be surprised to find that it’s the father, and not necessarily the mother, who can have a heavier influence on these eating habits that will develop through adolescence.
Whether it’s the genes on the father’s side of the family that can have a more direct impact on the metabolic health of the child (which can ultimately cause the child to be heavier if the father is prone to obesity) or it’s from the role that fathers typically play in choosing meal options and not skipping out on important meals, studies are showing a strong correlation between the father’s relationship with food and the child’s. If you’re starting to notice that your child is eating irregularly or craving unhealthy treats, it may be time to identify some of your own habits that may have more influence than you even realize.
First, it’s important to look at the genetic explanation — the U.S. National Library of Medicine has found a strong correlation between genes in the father’s sperm that can be passed to the children and can then result in an increased appetite during brain development. This trait is much more likely to be passed down from fathers who have a history of being overweight or obese. In this study, researchers found that the sperm in men who are of average weight differed from the sperm of men who are overweight, and the overweight men have certain genes that turned “on” and “off” differently than their counterparts. The genes that were stimulated differently in both groups of men were linked to appetite control and brain development, leading researchers to believe that this could be the reason why many overweight men end up raising overweight children.
The genes that the child inherits may not be all that goes into the equation when it comes to learning eating habits, however; Anthony Comuzzie, a researcher at the Texas Biomedical Research Institute in San Antonio, discussed how “epigenetics” come into play as well. Epigenetics refer to the changes in your genes — certain genes are active and certain genes are dormant throughout your life, and this changes naturally and regularly by way of age, environment, and lifestyle without changing your underlying DNA. Because epigenetic patterns can (and will) be altered by lifestyle changes, they can be changed through diet and exercise as well, and these patterns can then be inherited through the father’s sperm. It’s as if the child is taking the same biological handprint as the father, which can lead to the child inheriting the same appetite control and eating habits of the dad. Epigenetics are still a bit of a mystery to researchers as they further explore just how far these patterns can extend to the father’s offspring, but research has thus far concluded that the dietary habits of the father can affect the child while in the womb.
The eating habits of children extend far and beyond just genetic factors as well — it appears that the father’s own eating habits and relationship with food as seen by the child can also impact how that child views food. According to Pediatrics for Parents, the mother of the household is often viewed as the primary parent in charge of childcare activities, and this includes meal preparation. Because the mothers are assumed to be in charge of these tasks, this can, at times, lead fathers to believe that their own eating trends and attitudes toward food are not as carefully watched and copied by children, but this is not the case. Modeling healthy food behaviors, particularly during dinner settings where the family should all promote healthy eating for the child from an early age, is a great way to develop your child’s food preferences toward those that are beneficial and nourishing.
Health Central reported on a study performed by Texas A&M researchers that found some telling information regarding how the father’s choices on what — and where — to eat can have a huge impact on his children. The researchers found that children tended to want to eat at more fast-food restaurants or sit-in restaurants depending on what their fathers preferred, and the mother’s choice did not have as much of an impact. They also found that if the father felt that the act of having dinner together as a family was important, then the child was less likely to turn to fast-food chains or quick, unhealthy meals. If you’re looking to keep your child eating healthy and maintaining mindful eating habits, try to stay away from the drive-thru windows and aim to make at least one meal a day into a thoughtful family gathering.
On the other side of the coin, researchers also found that fathers are more likely to stray toward fast-food restaurants when they’re eating out or on the go looking for a quick bite with their kids, and this behavior is especially prevalent in fathers who spend a lot of time in the car. And the dads are the ones typically making the choice of where to go out to dinner when the whole family is involved. So if you find that you’re often considering a burger joint as the family go-to for a fast and easy dinner, you may want to reconsider. Fathers who consistently consume junk food and participate in lower levels of exercise are more than likely to pass these behaviors onto their children even when they don’t realize they’re doing it.
And, while it’s important to model a healthy relationship with the foods that you’re eating in order to benefit your children, it’s also important to model an appropriate number of times you should be eating in a day. “Fathers’ Impact on Children’s Nutrition” by Lisa K. Foster and Peg Gerould outlines the importance of not skipping over meals or encouraging too much snacking in between meals. If you don’t eat breakfast now, consider eating breakfast with your children to encourage this healthful habit and to keep mid-morning snacking at bay. It’s best for fathers to model for their children that meals such as breakfast are of the utmost importance to retain long-lasting energy and optimal brain function, and that snacking does not have to be a staple in their diets.