Dads play an important role in preventing childhood obesity

There are many different strategies parents use to influence their child’s diet and weight. Some parents may pressure their child to eat more food…other parents may try to restrict their child’s caloric intake. Ever wonder how your “feeding practices” are affecting childhood obesity? Members of the community want to know more about the science behind parental feeding practices. And so we interviewed an expert in this area – Rachel Vollmer, PhD, RD – who was happy to teach us a little about the subject.

“Feeding practices are behaviors or strategies parents use to accomplish a goal, usually, either to try to get their child to eat something or an amount of food, or to limit their child’s intake of a certain food. For example, if parents think that their child hasn’t eaten enough during the day or a certain meal, they may try to pressure their child to eat more food or even a certain type of food. On the other hand, if a parent thinks that his or her child doesn’t have a healthy enough diet, that parent may restrict the child’s access to certain foods, for example junk foods. Usually these behaviors or strategies are well-intentioned, but the consequences are sometimes not productive. Research has found that when parents intervene with those types of strategies, children have trouble focusing on their internal feelings of hunger and fullness, and instead, look for external cues to tell them they’ve had enough food (i.e., a clean plate).” – Rachel Vollmer, PhD, RD

Dr. Vollmer is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Family & Consumer Sciences at Illinois State University. She recently published new parenting research examining the link between fathers’ feeding practices and child eating behavior. She collaborated on the research with Kari Adamsons, Jaime Foster, and Amy Mobley.

The researchers surveyed 150 fathers of preschoolers. Paternal feeding practices were assessed (e.g., restriction and pressure to eat). They also reported various aspects of their child’s eating behavior.

So what did the data show? The key finding is that children are more likely to engage in emotional eating when dads use restrictive feeding practices or pressure the child to eat. This is problematic because emotional eating was positively correlated with the child’s body mass index (BMI) in this dataset.

Much more parenting research is needed to fully understand how feeding practices affect your child’s health. But for now, Vollmer and Mobley (her doctoral advisor) have a message for the community:

“The most important finding from this, we hope, is that parents, schools, health practitioners, etc. will understand and realize that dads are just important as moms when it comes to healthy eating, physical activity, and childhood obesity prevention. Dads need to be included in efforts to prevent or treat childhood obesity. But, we still think the surface has just been scratched and there is a lot of research that still needs to be done with dads as well as moms and dads together to understand how they influence a child together.” — Rachel Vollmer, PhD, RD & Amy Mobley, PhD, RD certainly agrees that dads need to be included more often. When it comes to parenting research, most studies focus exclusively on moms and this needs to change. Dr. Vollmer explained why she is so motivated to include dads in her research.

“Years ago, early on in my PhD, Dr. Mobley and I were conducting studies with mothers only, but the one thing we noticed was that dads were often accompanying the mother to the study, or dads were the parents responsible for picking up or dropping of their young child at school. The old stereotype of dad being the “breadwinner” and mom being the “caretaker” was instantly questioned, and we realized that dad may also be involved in child feeding or meal preparation at home, but there wasn’t much research out there on dads and childhood obesity prevention. At the same time, an Australian team of researchers (led by Dr. Philip Morgan) were championing the movement to include dads in research and childhood obesity prevention, which spiked our interest even more.” – Rachel Vollmer, PhD, RD

Want to read the full publication? It is easily obtained here. Unfortunately, Open Access is not yet available.


Photo by English: Lance Cpl. Sarah Wolff [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons