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Fathers do the food part of parenting better than mothers, finds study

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Fathers and food go together like chicken and waffles.

Parents looking for advice on how best to raise their kids are often told that consistency is the key and that both adults should use the same parenting style to present that “united front” for their child.

But a new Canadian study finds that there may be advantages to having mothers and fathers play different roles, at least when it comes to developing your child’s good nutrition habits. Even more so, the study suggests that dad’s influence may in the end be more important than mom’s.

Food parenting can prove difficult for the best of us, but research is showing that it’s one of the most important jobs a parent takes on. In Canada, more than 70 per cent of four to eight year-olds do not get the recommended daily servings of fruits and vegetables, and researchers have found that somewhere between 11 and 30 per cent of toddlers and preschool children in Canada are at moderate risk of having bad nutrition, with ten to 17 per cent at high risk.

Poor nutrition and poor eating habits at a young age can lead to long-term health problems such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease, says Jess Haines, associate professor in the Department of Family Relations and Applied Nutrition at the University of Guelph and co-author of the new study.

“Existing research suggests that parents are the primary influence on young children’s diet,” says Haines, in conversation with Cantech Letter. “However, research in this area has focused almost exclusively on mothers. Thus, less is known how father’s food parenting practices are associated with children’s dietary intake.”

Part of the Guelph Family Health Study pilot, the new study involved a sample of 31 two-parent families (31 mothers, 31 fathers and 40 children averaging 3.5 years of age) who were each given a questionnaire to assess their parenting and feeding practices, as well as to chart children’s nutrition risks. The questions probed concepts such as using food as a reward or to regulate emotions, involving children in meal preparation and encouraging a balance and variety of foods.

Overall, the results concurred with previous research which shows that, most importantly, parents who involve their children in food preparation and who provide a healthy home environment are more likely to have children at low risk for nutrition problems.

Yet, the study also found some novel differences between mothers’ and fathers’ food parenting: for mothers, the practice of using food as a reward was associated with a higher risk of poor nutrition but for fathers, the same practice was neither positively nor negatively associated with good nutrition. As well, while for mothers the modelling of good eating habits for their kids had no negative or positive association with nutrition risk, for fathers, modelling good habits proved to be beneficial.

The idea that food parenting tactics work differently for mothers and fathers was a surprise, says Haines. “Our finding that fathers’, but not mothers’, modelling of healthy food intake was associated with healthier dietary intake among children was surprising and suggests that fathers play an important role in the development of their children’s eating behaviours.”

Why does it work better for fathers to act out good eating habits than mothers? The researchers suggest it may be due to fathers being more expressive or enthusiastic in the modelling — basically, that Dad is the more convincing actor when it comes to selling that broccoli.

But the study’s authors also say that fathers may have a more protective influence on their young children’s nutrition and that, ultimately, children may be more strongly influenced by their fathers than their mothers when it comes to eating behaviours.

The high praise for fathers also highlights the need for more inclusion of fathers in research on childhood nutrition, a factor that has so far been neglected, says Haines. “Our results highlight the importance of including fathers in research examining children’s health behaviours,” says Haines.

The study is published in the journal Applied physiology, nutrition and metabolism.

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About The Author /

Jayson is a writer, researcher and educator with a PhD in political philosophy from the University of Ottawa. His interests range from bioethics and innovations in the health sciences to governance, social justice and the history of ideas.
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