Fathers underrepresented in childhood obesity research

Family Dinner without Father

The involvement of fathers in caregiving has increased substantially over the past 30 years, yet according to a new study, research on parenting and child health hasn’t kept up with this demographic shift.

The statistics are not reassuring for obesity in our younger generation. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years. Weight statistics for children are approaching that of adults: 1 in 3 children is now overweight or obese. Obesity places children at higher risk for type 2 diabetes, asthma, and sleep apnea, and has a potentially negative effect on their mental health, performance in school, and social relationships.

Diet and exercise habits begin early in life. Therefore, parents play a key role in obesity prevention and are a main target of research. However, the majority of research has focused solely on mothers.

Dr. Kirsten Davison and colleagues from the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health and the University at Albany set out to verify the disparity of mothers and fathers included in research on parenting and childhood obesity, conducting a systemic review and analysis of more than 600 observational studies. [1] While more than 300 of the studies included both mothers and fathers, only 57 reported the results for fathers separately from mothers. In total, only 10% of studies included results for fathers. Also noteworthy is that 36% of studies included only mothers, while only 1% of studies included only fathers.

Why does a father’s involvement matter? There is a lack of research exploring the influence of fathers on children’s health behaviors, particularly their nutrition. This information is needed to develop effective family interventions to prevent child obesity. Current interventions are based on mothers and may not include strategies appropriate for fathers. This may discourage a father’s involvement in obesity prevention and treatment programs.

In their review, researchers also found studies that included fathers tended to focus less on diet and more on physical activity. Studies including fathers also tended not to include families of low socioeconomic status, from minority racial/ethnic groups, or receiving food assistance. There was also an age difference; significantly more studies with fathers included children in middle school or high school and not infants or preschool-age children.

“I don’t think people will be surprised to learn that fathers are underrepresented in childhood obesity research, or that studies focusing on children’s physical activity are more likely to include fathers than studies focusing on nutrition,” said Davison. “The point of this study is to put some hard numbers behind what we already know or suspect in an effort to push for change.”

In a separate study, Davison and colleagues asked over 300 fathers their perceptions of why they are rarely included in child health studies. [2]

“What is really interesting here” noted Davison “is that over 80% of the fathers said it was because they hadn’t been asked to participate. There is a mismatch here because many researchers will tell you that they have tried everything to recruit fathers, but nothing seems to work.  What we learned in talking to fathers is that it is important to explicitly recruit ‘fathers’ rather than ‘parents,’ and to use online methods as much as possible to accommodate work schedules and keep things brief.”


  1. Davison K.K., et al. Fathers’ Representation in Observational Studies on Parenting and Childhood Obesity: A Systematic Review and Content Analysis. Am J Public Health. Published online ahead of print September 15, 2016.
  1. Davison K.K., Charles J.N., Khandpur N., & Nelson T.J. Fathers’ perceived reasons for their underrepresentation in child health research and strategies to increase their involvement. Matern Child Health J.  Published online: 29 July 2016.