What defines a good father? Teaching your child to ride a bike? Giving advice? Showing how to make your secret-recipe spaghetti sauce? That’s what you might do after your child has been born, but what about before? Science suggests that your legacy — and responsibility — as a father begins long before you welcome your first child into the world.
It’s clear that a woman’s health before and during pregnancy plays a critical role in the health of her child, as well as the adult that child eventually becomes. But science is increasingly finding that paying attention to nutrition and lifestyle is important for dads-to-be as well.
The fact that a father contributes half of his child’s genetic material (DNA) via his sperm is basic biology, but researchers are starting to find that a man’s nutrition and lifestyle choices can leave lasting marks on his future children as well as his grandchildren, thanks to epigenetics.
Think of epigenetics as your body’s software and your DNA as its hardware. Lifestyle habits can leave epigenetic “tags” on DNA that turn genes on or off — for better or for worse.
A father’s epigenetic tags are most likely to affect sons and grandsons, but some may affect daughters and granddaughters. So which unhealthful nutrition habits may have these downstream effects? High-calorie, high-fat, low-nutrient diets. Low-protein intake. Low levels of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Obesity and lack of physical activity. The results may be increased risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer and other serious health issues.
It’s well established that alcohol intake during pregnancy can result in fetal alcohol syndrome, and that inadequate levels of folate or folic acid at the beginning of pregnancy increase the risk of neural tube defects. But it turns out that children of alcoholic fathers are also at risk for fetal alcohol syndrome, and excessive drinking in general can set up future sons to have an enhanced taste for alcohol, increasing the risk of alcohol abuse.
Although the scientific jury is still out, it appears it’s also important for men to get enough folic acid when they are planning to start a family.
The two critical windows when good nutrition and a healthful lifestyle matter most to a man’s future progeny are adolescence and pre-conception. A boy’s initial sperm cells develop right before puberty. From puberty onward, it takes about three months for a batch of sperm to fully develop and mature, so improving your nutrition and health — including reducing alcohol intake — when you’re thinking about starting a family benefits not just you, but the child you plan to have.
Of course, earlier is better when it comes to good nutrition. When boys (and girls) eat better, they may do better in school and sports and lower their personal risk of future chronic disease, but they are also setting the stage for a healthier next generation.
Here’s what fathers (and mothers) can do to help shape the future.
• Expose young children to a variety of healthful foods, and reintroduce them, as palates may change.
• Be a good role model. When your kids see you eat and enjoy healthful food, they’re more likely to do it, too.
• Enlist your kids in the kitchen. The need to have at least fundamental cooking skills knows no gender boundaries. Meals cooked at home from whole or minimally processed foods are almost always more healthful than prepared foods.
• Get kids excited about vegetables. Plant an edible garden or take your kids to farmers markets. Let them pick out produce at the grocery store.