Working dads have a role in beating childhood obesity

Controversial research appears to blame mums yet more men working flexibly or part-time could make a big difference

Childhood obesity

Obesity is on the rise but mums and dads can help kids make the right choices

A controversial study claiming working mums tend to have fatter kids has been criticised for ignoring the role working dads can play in their children’s health.

While the research did find mothers that work full time are more likely to have obese children it did not go as far as saying that one clear solution would be for fathers to work flexibly or part time to allow them to be more involved in family life and share responsibility more equally for their children’s health.

The research looked at nearly 20,000 UK families with children born around 2001. The report authors, Professor Emla Fitzsimmons of University College London and Benedetta Pongiglione from Bocconi University, were looking to replicate studies from the US that have pointed to a link between a mother’s work and their children’s Body Mass Index (BMI), the standard measure of obesity.

Domestic work

They claim in their conclusion that children whose mothers work tend to have a higher BMI, meaning they are more likely to be obese. They suggested this was because working mothers tend to have less time for domestic work including preparing meals and their kids are more likely to be left in front of screens rather than taking part in exercise. Yet in three quarters of the families studied both parents work meaning the fathers are equally unlikely to be making breakfast or entertaining their kids.

The effect was most marked in one parent households. The children of single mums working full-time were almost 25% more likely to be overweight than the kids of stay-at-home mothers. For full-time working mothers who have a partner, the figure falls to 7.8% suggesting working dads can have a huge impact on their kids health. Four out of five fathers in the research – drawn from the landmark Millennium Cohort Study set up at the start of the century to track families over time – are employed full time, 10% work part time.

While the authors suggested men doing more domestic work could make a difference they were unable to measure the impact of dads doing more or less work because most of the men in the study are in full time employment.

The authors have been accused of blaming women for the obesity crisis and ignoring fathers.

Role Models

Sophie Walker, the founding leader of the Women’s Equality Party, tweeted her disdain for the research, “Still waiting for that study on the impact of poorly thought-through research reported by misogynist media outlets.”

The Fatherhood Institute has been working on new projects around this issue seeking to make it easier for men to be better role models to their children around diet and fitness including a ‘dads and daughters’ scheme in conjunction with Fulham Football Club that recently attracted funding from Sport England.

Jeremy Davies of The Fatherhood Institute says, “There is lots of evidence that fathers have a significant impact on children’s obesity. Services rarely acknowledge this, and may contribute to this unhelpful narrative of mother-blaming. It’s not easy for any parent to ensure their children eat well and take the right amount of exercise; the modern food industry and world of advertising offer up serious challenges and we all need the best help we can get.”

The Centre for Longitudinal Studies that sponsored the research rejecting the criticism. In an online response they said, “Our study does not place any blame on mothers, or anyone else, but does provide robust evidence for policymakers to support families to tackle childhood obesity.”

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