As many have long suspected, becoming a dad is associated with putting on pounds, according to recent research. Already a biological inevitability for most moms during pregnancy, post-baby weight gain is a struggle for dads, too, according to a widely publicized study published in the American Journal of Men’s Health.
The 20-year, population-based study published in July followed more than 10,000 males as they came of age and found that new dads who lived with their children gained, on average, 4.4 pounds; newly minted fathers who didn’t live with their children gained 3.3 pounds. Men who didn't become fathers during the study, by comparison, dropped an average of 1.4 pounds.
The weight gain for new fathers is over and above the added heft shown to be associated with men tying the knot, and independent of other factors that can affect what the scale says, such as aging or socioeconomic status, according to the study’s lead author Dr. Craig Garfield, an associate professor of pediatrics and of medical social sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.
For all the lighthearted poking and prodding about the so-called dad bod, experts say packing on pounds can have serious health consequences for fathers that affect next of kin as well. “Being overweight or obese is associated with heart disease and diabetes and even cancers and early death as well,” Garfield says, noting that men already have a shorter life expectancy than women. “So I think the more active men are, and the better nutrition they have … the healthier they’re going to be, and the healthier their families [are] going to be.”
So what can men do to shed the extra weight associated with becoming a parent – or keep it off in the first place? Garfield, a father of two, along with experts in diet and fitness, weighed in with this advice:
Plan Your Snacks
Sleep-deprived parents often eat poorly, grabbing whatever calories will keep their eyes open. Garfield says dads can set themselves up for success by having healthful snacks available in the house. “So that when you’re hungry, or even your kids are hungry, you’re grabbing carrot sticks, cut-up vegetables, whole-grain crackers and things like that, instead of the Oreos or [other] cookies that may be sitting there – just don’t bring those home,” he says.
Nosh on protein-packed bites, such as a packet of nuts, yogurt, cheese and whole-grain crackers or a hard-boiled egg, suggests Jim White, a registered dietitian, health fitness instructor and owner of Jim White Fitness & Nutrition Studios, based in Virginia Beach, Virginia. White, who regularly counsels fathers on proper diet and exercise, says this will increase satiety, provide an energy boost and help even out your blood sugar levels in the middle of the day.
Don’t Skip Meals
White recommends eating complete, healthful meals, too, along with grabbing a snack every two to four hours between meals. He notes that many new dads – like new moms – get busy and make the mistake of skipping meals. That’s a setup for failure: They're so famished, they actually overeat, he says.
Play With Your Kids
Want to work your core? Dad Rick Richey, owner of the Independent Training Spot in New York City and faculty for the National Academy of Sports Medicine, says getting on all fours to become a human horse is a great way to do it. Kids don’t need to be prompted to play, he and Garfield say. Take their lead. When they want to run, run after them.
Be an example, and get healthier doing so. "Children’s activity levels are based, in large part, on the father’s activity levels,” Richey says, adding that you needn’t be at the gym to shed pounds. Tired from wrestling with the rug rats? Richey says when he gets fatigued playing with his kids, he asks himself: Would I quit at the gym? You know the answer.
“Internationally, cross-culturally, dads are involved in more of the active play, generally, than moms," Garfield adds. "So take advantage of that and get outside, throw a ball, run around, chase after your kid, play hide-and-seek – all those things will get you active and your kid active.” Not that moms shouldn’t get in on the action – whole families are encouraged to exercise and play together – but experts say dads should act on the impulse to play physically as a way of bonding to improve their health and that of their families.
Even if your baby isn’t bipedal yet, you can still be active together, from pushing the stroller to lifting kids up in the air. “All kids like to be picked up overhead,” Richey says. Of course, for safety reasons, it goes without saying that this is not the place to push for extra reps.
Trade Screen Time For Face Time
Do you really need to check work email one more time – while you’re away from work? “What children want from their parents is their time, their literal face time,” Garfield says, which goes for just hanging out as well as inspiring parent-child activity. “If you do that, then you’re going to reduce the time that you personally are spending on phones and in front of screens.”
Monitor Tour Progress
Take advantage of technology, such as a FitBit or the Nike FuelBand or the Jawbone UP, which allow you to track how many steps you’ve taken, White says, so you can economize the time you have and work toward fitness goals throughout the day.
Don’t Eat Your Kids’ Leftovers
It’s tempting to grab the leftover pizza crust – Garfield has admitted as much, though he says he’s kept off fatherhood weight, in part, by staying active with his kids. Toss the leftovers, rather than adding them to your midsection. Even bite-sized foods can pack in the calories, and they make it easy to lose track of how much you’re eating. ”Just an extra 100 calories a day can add up to 10 pounds in a year,” White says. “I would be very cognizant of not eating your kids' food, and just stick to your food alone.”
Eat Healthier Out
Let’s face it: Although it’s important for parents to work together to bring healthy foods into the home, sometimes you’re just going to want a break. “I think what happens is a lot of new parents will eat out a lot because they don’t have time to cook. And, of course, portion sizes at restaurants have actually grown enormously,” White says.
Don’t give up on home-cooked meals. And when you are out, share an entree; skip the bread and butter, which can add hundreds of calories; order an appetizer instead of an entree; and, if you get something sweet, share it with your significant other. “I always say [follow] the three-bite rule to share a dessert. Maybe have three small spoonfuls, then leave the rest down, rather than having a whole, entire dessert by yourself,” White says.
Exercise Outside The Home, Too
A little alone time is OK – and healthy. (Just be supportive of mom in the same way by trading some moments of kid-free sanity with her, too.) These activities could include running, biking and lifting weights, as well as floor exercises you can do at home.
”Anything to get your heart rate up,” Richey says. Short bursts can go a long way in the time-crunched space of parenthood. Aim to be active for a least 150 minutes per week, according to the federal Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.
Don’t confine yourself or your significant other to eking out five minutes here or there. Instead, experts say, keep lines of communication open about what you’re missing, lean on each other for support and orient goals to the family so that being healthy and active isn’t a tug-of-war or an individual event.