father kicks soccer ball with two sons

Supporting Latino fathers in preventing childhood obesity

Researchers identify strategies for working with Latino fathers during all phases of obesity-prevention programs
April 28, 2021

Childhood obesity is a growing problem around the world and can lead to poorer health outcomes into adulthood. Because of this, researchers and health care professionals have worked to build different interventions meant to reduce childhood obesity. This includes research on interventions targeting fathers and their roles in promoting healthy eating and physical activity. However, much of this research has focused on non-Hispanic white fathers, meaning there is a shortage of knowledge on how to effectively work with Latino fathers, whose families are more likely to face negative health outcomes due to diet, including obesity.

In a new study published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, Joseph Sharkey, PhD, MPH, professor in the Department of Health Promotion & Community Health Sciences at the Texas A&M University School of Public Health, Cassandra Johnson, PhD, MSPH, a graduate of the School of Public Health and an assistant professor at Texas State University, and colleagues from the Texas A&M School of Public Health reviewed studies of father-focused child obesity programs to provide perspective on supporting Latino fathers in nutrition and obesity-prevention programs. By identifying certain factors, it may be possible to build programs that could better help Latino fathers in childhood obesity prevention efforts.

Research has found that fathers play an important role in obesity prevention because of their influences on family food choices and physical activity. In addition, fathers today are far more involved in child care activities than in previous generations. Latino fathers in particular tend to be more engaged in child caregiving than their non-Hispanic white counterparts and view themselves as role models for their children. However, knowledge on how best to support Latino fathers in obesity-prevention programs remains scarce. Johnson, Sharkey and colleagues reviewed literature on obesity-prevention interventions and identified various strategies for working with Latino fathers during the recruitment, engagement, retention and maintenance phases of such programs.

Recruitment is the first phase. The researchers identified the importance of building support for nutrition programs through community organizations like churches and the importance of engaging promotoras de salud (community health workers) who share the same culture and language with the community in the development and implementation of family-centered programs. Recruitment efforts often take place at local events and community venues. Sharkey and colleagues also note that studies have found that recruiting materials that target fathers may be more effective and that having a promotora approach a family member like a partner or child’s mother first may improve the chances of recruiting fathers.

Once fathers have been recruited, obesity-prevention programs must engage them and keep them in the program for it to be successful. Studies show that emphasizing convenience and the benefits of these programs can improve engagement, as can providing more inclusive spaces for fathers. This can be accomplished by having more male staff members and activities that are more appealing to fathers. In such cases, having staff who understand different cultural factors can be highly beneficial. Sharkey and colleagues found less information on retaining fathers in programs. Increased male staffing may have some effect.

Additionally, Latino fathers tend to be the main source of household income, so recognizing and valuing the trade-offs that they must make between time spent working and participating in the program may help with retention. Maintaining the changes made during interventions is another area where there is little guidance; however, using a family-centered approach that considers cultural factors like family dynamics and food choices may improve the chances of long-lasting effects.

The findings of this study highlight areas in need of further research and the importance of training researchers on cultural factors, health disparities and community outreach. It also points to the importance of a nutrition workforce that is more diverse with respect to race, ethnicity and gender. The researchers recommend that future work should consider gender, race, ethnicity, family structure and other factors when analyzing participation in health interventions. Additionally, further engagement with Latino fathers could lead to better programs.

— Tim Schnettler

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