Fathers’ food choices during pregnancy influence future health of babies

What fathers eat during their partner’s pregnancy has a lasting effect on the future health of their unborn children, new research has revealed.

The Queensland Family Cohort (QFC) study, led by Mater Research and The University of Queensland, has shown an urgent need for targeted public health messaging to improve the diets of soon-to-be mothers and fathers.

The researchers examined dietary data from almost 200 couples who were receiving antenatal care at Australia’s largest maternity hospital, the Mater Mothers’ Hospital in Brisbane between 2018 and 2021.

Mother’s diet strongly influenced by Father

QFC Principal Investigator, Professor Vicki Clifton said the study found pregnant women’s dietary intake was strongly influenced by their partner, particularly in the consumption of fruit, vegetables and meat or meat alternatives.

“We know behaviours during the first 1,000 days of life, starting from conception, influence developmental trajectories of adult chronic diseases.”

Professor Clifton

“Healthy eating during pregnancy provides the unborn child with an important foundation for future good health, but many pregnant women aren’t meeting the recommended Australian Dietary Guidelines.

Previously very little research in Father’s diet

“The research suggests better education and support for partners could help improve the eating habits of expectant mums, which in turn will make the foetus healthier and lower their future risk of disease.”

Lead author on the study, Associate Professor Shelley Wilkinson from The University of Queensland School of Human Movement and Nutrition Sciences, said there had been very little research in the past on the role fathers played in a woman’s nutritional journey during pregnancy.

“While it’s known that education, income, and Body Mass Index influence how women eat in pregnancy, this study addresses the gap in knowledge in how a partner’s eating habits influence mums-to-be,” said Dr Wilkinson who was previously the senior maternity research dietitian at Mother Mothers’ Hospital and a recipient of the Mater Research Strategic Grant for Outstanding Women.

“The study also showed women with a higher pre-pregnancy Body Mass Index were far more likely to gain above recommended weight gain ranges, suggesting the urgent need for evidence-informed public health policy and programs to improve diet quality during pregnancy and help prevent intergenerational effects.”

The QFC study findings have been published in the peer-reviewed journal Nutrition & Dietetics.

A very low proportion of participants met the five, core food group intake recommendations.

Only 41.4 per cent of women met daily fruit and 28.4 per cent vegetable intake recommendations, while around 31 per cent and 15 per cent of their partners met these, respectively.

Fewer than one per cent of women and 20 per cent of partners met the recommended intake of serves for breads, cereals and grains and extremely low numbers met pregnancy nutrient reference values (NRVs) for folate, iodine, calcium, zinc, and fibre from food alone.

Brisbane mother of four, Vicki Holohan said her husband Thomas Holohan did influence what she ate during her pregnancy.

“Thomas usually enjoys cooking and often does make a family meal but whilst I was pregnant, I was feeling extra tired and so during that period he was making most of our family’s meal choices,” she said.

“I was always trying to be careful about what I ate, but I definitely relied on Thomas to drive our meal choices during my pregnancy.”

Father’s role starts early

Thomas Holohan said he may have done things a little different if he had known his food choices would flow through to their babies.

Thoman Holohan and his daughter.

“As Dads we get used to thinking our work will begin when the baby is born, but this study shows a father’s role starts much earlier!” Mr Holohan said.

“If I’d known about the influence I would have, I probably would have taken a lot more care with my diet choices – maybe cooking more at home and eating less takeout.”

Data was collected at 22, 24, 28 and 36-weeks’ gestation, and six weeks after the birth of the child.

The collaborative study also involved several researchers from other Australian and overseas-based universities including the University of Newcastle, University of Wollongong, and University of Southampton, United Kingdom.

The Queensland Family Cohort study is the newest birth research cohort in the state in the last 40 years that aims to follow 10,000 Queensland families over three decades to understand the influences on health.

The researchers hope the study will lead to the discovery of biomarkers and interventions that can improve the future health of Queenslanders.

Pregnant women and families interested in joining the Queensland Family Cohort Study can find out more information or join here: www.qldfamilycohort.org