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The unseen influence: how a dad’s diet can impact his kids’ health

If you blame your dad for passing onto you a love of takeaway food, you’re not alone. If you’re a dad, your eating habits may be influencing your children more than you think.

Research has found children as young as 20 months old already share dietary associations with their fathers, eating sugary snacks, takeaway foods and sugar-sweetened drinks based on their dad’s intake. The research by Adam Walsh, lecturer in nutrition and dietetics at Deakin University, indicates that fathers have little understanding of the ways their behaviours can impact their children’s dietary choices in their formative years. Mr Walsh is completing his PhD through Deakin’s Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN).

‘As a father of two young children and a dietitian by trade, my profession gave me thoughts and ideas about what is appropriate for a healthy diet and activity, but most people I’d talk to about these issues were mums. Dads just didn’t have a part in these discussions,’ Mr Walsh explains.

Unexpected results

Mr Walsh’s study, found children begin to react to the influence on their eating habits of significant figures in their lives – including dads – at around 20 months; an earlier age than previously thought. These influences may become much more pronounced as a child gets older.

‘Even dads who don’t cook or prepare meals have an indirect influence on their child’s dietary behaviours through their own individual food likes and dislikes, and role modelling,’ explains Mr Walsh. ‘This is things like “what’s dad doing? Is he sitting with us? Is he eating the same thing that’s on my plate?”’

Subsequent research carried out by Mr Walsh showed child dietary intake at 20 months was predictive of change in dietary intake at three-and-a-half and five years, confirming that long-term habits can form based on behaviours at an early age.

'‘Even dads who don’t cook or prepare meals have an indirect influence on their child’s dietary behaviours through their own individual food likes and dislikes, and role modelling.''

Adam Walsh,
Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition, Deakin University

Shaping the future

In his previous role working in dietetics at a private Melbourne hospital, Mr Walsh felt frustrated by the attitudes towards healthy eating he faced from older Australians who had recently undergone invasive cardiac procedures. After working for a number of years at the Royal Children’s Hospital, Mr Walsh arrived at Deakin and decided to work from the bottom up – that is, to find out how and when a significant figure in a child’s life (such as their father) can influence lifelong dietary behaviours.

‘I felt dads had a role to play but perhaps weren’t as proactive about engaging in that role. This may be partly influenced by our ideas of traditional family roles – where mums are nutrition gate keepers, and dads are in charge of kicking the footy,’ Mr Walsh explains. ‘However we know there’s been a dramatic change in workforce over the past few decades (mums of young children returning to the workforce earlier) so traditional roles are now changing. Even in my own social circles, dads are more involved in domestic duties like school drop offs and meal preparation.’

Dads are an important influence

While fathers certainly aren’t the only dietary influence on their children, Mr Walsh’s research suggests they do play a significant part. ‘Dads don’t know they matter. They think they don’t have much influence on pre-school aged kids but that just isn’t true,’ he says.

Mr Walsh sees his research as simply one part of the public health equation, shedding more light on the ways we can help prevent childhood obesity and lifelong associations with unhealthy foods.

Mr Walsh has the following tips for dads to change or improve their eating habits:

  • Lead by example. Kids perceive an awful lot from a very young age. If you can start setting a context around when occasional treats are appropriate, children will follow those cues.
  • Get in and help out. Where it’s plausible and feasible, assisting with meal preparation can spark a child’s interest and increase their learning.

Want to learn more about the importance of nutrition in childhood? Try our free two week course on FutureLearn, Infant Nutrition: from Breastfeeding to Baby’s First Solids

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Adam Walsh
Adam Walsh

School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences and Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN), Deakin University

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