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Could Fatherlessness Actually Cause Childhood Obesity?

According to the National Fatherhood Initiative, not having Dad at home leads to a host of problems, and the list is getting longer. In 2011, 44 percent of kids in mother-only families were living in poverty, compared with only 12 percent of children in married-couple families.


“Even after controlling for income,” the NFI says, “youths in father-absent households still had significantly higher odds of incarceration than those in mother-father families. Youths who never had a father in the household experienced the highest odds.”


Being raised without a father increases the risk of teen pregnancy, of getting married without a high school diploma, and of marrying someone without a high school degree.


And here’s a new one: Fatherlessness may be connected to childhood obesity. It seems that children who are obese are more likely to live in father absent-homes than are non-obese kids.


And when it comes to childhood obesity, the research shows that the effect of father-absence actually begins in the womb. The journal The Family in America reports that a study from the University of Kansas and from Aarhus University and the University of Copenhagen in Denmark demonstrates that childhood obesity is not simply a matter of diet.


Instead, it shows the link between parental separation before the birth of a child on that child’s likelihood of becoming overweight or obese. The research indicates that kids whose parents lived separately before their birth were almost twice as likely to be overweight as 9-to-11-year-old children whose parents were living together. The study says the results constitute evidence of “a fetal programming effect due to prenatal moderate stress.”


And such risks of fatherless homes are not just apparent in the West. Kids in the poor world are also at risk from family breakdown. “In Africa alone, the number of overweight children under five years of age nearly doubled from 5.4 million to 10.3 million between 1990 and 2014,” and that’s according to a Newsweek report. Some of that increase is due to changes in diet and activity levels, but not all of it. “Obesity in children cannot be seen as a result of lifestyle choices made by the child,” the magazine adds. “We now know that processes, even before birth, can determine the way children respond to the nutrition and physical activity opportunities of the modern world and so increase the risk of them becoming overweight and obese.”


Newsweek warns that increasing obesity rates in Africa and Asia could undermine the increased life expectancies researchers have recorded over the last decade. The World Health Organization’s Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity, which began in 2014, has admitted that “no single intervention can halt the … growing obesity epidemic.” According to Newsweek, the commission’s final report includes six sets of recommendations and also outlines the required actions from governments, international agencies, and civil society.


Yet The Family in America journal notes, “Research indicates that if they really want to combat childhood obesity, [these groups] would do well to take a hard look at their cultural views and legal statutes surrounding marriage.”


I for one question if they will. The ideological forces behind redefining the family and denigrating the role of fathers won’t be deterred by mere facts—nor will they let their efforts be derailed by the well-being of children.


Which is why we who believe in God’s plan for families must recommit ourselves to supporting marriage by word and deed. Even if no one else does, the kids will thank us. Come to and click on this commentary. We’ll link you to organizations that defend and promote healthy marriages.


BreakPoint is a Christian worldview ministry that seeks to build and resource a movement of Christians committed to living and defending Christian worldview in all areas of life. Begun by Chuck Colson in 1991 as a daily radio broadcast, BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today’s news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print. Today BreakPoint commentaries, co-hosted by Eric Metaxas and John Stonestreet, air daily on more than 1,200 outlets with an estimated weekly listening audience of eight million people. Feel free to contact us at where you can read and search answers to common questions.

Eric Metaxas is a co-host of BreakPoint Radio and a best-selling author whose biographies, children's books, and popular apologetics have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

Publication date: February 26, 2016

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