It's not just women who struggle with their weight after a baby arrives. If you're eating for two — and you shouldn't be — you might expect to gain a little excess. However, according to a new study from Northwestern Medicine in Chicago, after the birth of a first child, men too can put on the pounds and so raise the risk of heart disease, diabetes and cancer.
The study looked at data from more than ten thousand men who'd had their weight tracked over a 20-year period from adolescence to adulthood. The results showed that men who lived with their new babies gained around 4.4 pounds (a 2.6 percent rise in the average BMI) while those that lived separately fared only slightly better, gaining 3.3 pounds (2 percent of BMI). Each of the participants had their BMI measured at four different time points: early adolescence, later adolescence, mid-20s and early 30s.
The researchers categorized each of the participants as a non-father, resident father or non-resident father and took the average of the measurements to determine whether their fatherhood status was associated with their BMI. After figures were adjusted to account for other factors that lead to an increase in weight (age, income, physical activity, education, race and marital status) researchers found that new fathers gain on average between 3.5 to 4.5 pounds compared to non-fathers — and this is still true whether they live with their offspring or not. Comparable men — for this study, ones of the same height — who were not fathers, on average, lost about 1.4 pounds over the same period.
"Fatherhood can affect the health of young men, above the already known effect of marriage," says lead author Craig Garfield, associate professor of pediatrics and of medical social sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. "The more weight the fathers gain and the higher their BMI, the greater risk they have for developing heart disease as well as diabetes and cancer." The study of the so-called "fatherhood effect" was published in the July 21 edition of the American Journal of Men's Health.
The weight gain in men, Garfield's team says, may be due to changes in lifestyle and eating habits. The compounding of a busy work schedule and a demanding home life leads to short cuts for diets. In addition, they warn, the arrival of a child can mean the house fills with cookies, ice cream and other snack food. "You have new responsibilities when you have your kids and may not have time to take care of yourself the way you once did in terms of exercise," Garfield said. "Your family becomes the priority."
The researchers suggest their findings could present an important new responsibility for health care providers. Garfield argues that, because many new dads don't have a personal physician — many new fathers think they're too young and healthy to need their own doctor — pediatricians might be in a good position to counsel them about their health. "New dads are coming into the health care system as a pediatric chaperone," Garfield said. "This is an opportunity to talk about things that are important for dad's health and the child's health and to offer dads nutritional counseling and mental health education."
Previous studies by Garfield have shown that, in the first year of their child's life, new fathers have an increased likelihood of symptoms of depression. "We now realize the transition to fatherhood is an important developmental life stage for men's health," Garfield said. "It's a magical moment where so many things change in a man's life. Now the medical field needs to think about how we can help these men of child-rearing age who often don't come to the doctor's office for themselves."
If you are a new parent — or about to become one — there are many ways in which you can fight the fatherhood effect. Keep in mind that what is good for you is good for your new arrival: keep healthy snacks that you can all enjoy around the house — you'll be instilling the habits of a lifetime, which they'll thank you for later. There are always exercise programs you can fit into a busy schedule, build into your commute or even do in your business best. A short workout is better than no workout at all and, no matter how short it is, remember that every minute of your daily fitness routine is another little victory. Especially, perhaps, if you get to workout with your toddler.