In time for Father’s Day, a new University of Guelph study has found that parents, and especially fathers, play a vital role in developing healthy behaviours in young adults and helping to prevent obesity in their children.

The researchers found that young adults who grew up in stable families with quality parental relationships were more likely to have healthy diet, activity and sleep behaviours, and were less likely to be obese.

father-sonSurprisingly, they found that when it came to predicting whether a young male will become overweight or obese, the mother-son relationship mattered far less than the relationship between father and son.

“Much of the research examining the influence of parents has typically examined only the mother’s influence or has combined information across parents,” said Prof. Jess Haines, Family Relations and Applied Nutrition, and lead author of the paper.

“Our results underscore the importance of examining the influence fathers have on their children and to develop strategies to help fathers support the development of healthy behaviours among their children.”

The researchers studied more than 3,700 females and more than 2,600 males, all aged 14-24, who participated in the Growing Up Today Study 2 in 2011.

Among both males and females, 80 per cent said they had high family function, defined by how well the family managed daily routines, and how family members fulfilled their roles and connected emotionally.

In all, six out of 10 females and half of males reported high-quality relationships with their parents.

Prof. Jess Haines
Prof. Jess Haines

High family functioning and quality family relationships were associated with lower odds of eating disorders, more frequent physical activity and more sleep. Females in these families also reported eating less fast food, and were less likely to be overweight or obese.

Among males, father relationship quality had a greater impact on their odds of being overweight or obese.

“It appears the father-son parent relationship has a stronger influence on sons than the mother-daughter relationship has on young women,” said Haines.

“However, more research is needed to explore the mechanisms by which father-son relationship quality influences weight status in youth and to explore possible differences in these mechanisms among males and females.”

In general, the findings show the importance of family behaviours and relationships on the health of young adults from an early age, Haines noted.

“These can be powerful determinants of weight and related behaviours,” she said.

“A high level of family dysfunction may interfere with the development of healthful behaviours due to the families’ limited ability to develop routines related to eating, sleep or activity behaviours, which can lead to excess weight gain.”

The study is published in the Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity.