Watch out Produce Aisle, Here Comes Dad!

SarahBlennerBy Sarah Blenner, JD, MPH

Diabetes and obesity are serious health problems that are affecting an increasing number of Americans of all different ages.  The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently estimated that, based on existing trends, the prevalence of diabetes could increase from 1 in 10 adults to 1 in 3 adults within the next forty years.  This means that the CDC expects the number of people with diabetes to either double or triple by the year 2050.  While there is no single known cause for either type 1 or type 2 diabetes, there are a variety of widely accepted risk factors associated with both forms.  For example, type 2 diabetes risk factors include, but are not limited to: age, race/ethnicity, body mass index (BMI), activity levels, and family history.  Recent studies suggest that breast size, eyebrow color, and short stature might also be associated with an increased risk for diabetes. 

A recent study conducted on rats has even suggested that if a dad-to-be eats a lot of foods that are high in fat before his child is conceived, then he is more likely to pass the risk of diabetes and obesity on to his daughter.  This study might be the only one of its kind to report that a father can pass along a risk factor associated with diabetes that is not inherently genetic.  Although the study was conducted on rats, the researchers hypothesized that the conclusions of the study might be congruent in human populations, since obesity in men affects sperm function, sperm mobility, and the amount of DNA damaged in sperm.  If in fact the findings of this study are applicable to people, there may be some serious implications for future generations, as thirty-four percent of adults are considered obese, an additional thirty-four percent of adults are considered overweight and the rates of diabetes in the adult population are drastically rising. 

But what can we do now that we know the risks?  While risk factors such as age may be out of our control, in theory we can work on changing or improving other risk factors, such as BMI, the amount of exercise we get, and the type of foods we eat.  Making these changes will be difficult for a significant segment of the American population without systemic policy changes.  For example, in the Chicago Metropolitan region alone, nine percent of the population resides in areas known as “food deserts,” where they cannot access fresh fruits and vegetables or other healthy food options

The recent study regarding the diet of future dads comes at a time when planning, prevention, and food justice is being pushed onto the national agenda by grassroots organizations, concerned citizens, political leaders, and government agencies alike.  As part of the Let’s Move! campaign, Michelle Obama has pledged to eliminate food deserts and promote healthy lifestyles.  The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning recently published its plan for Metropolitan Chicago called GO TO 2040.  The plan, in part, outlines ways that policy makers and community leaders can incorporate policies that will address sustainable food systems, including food access and food production. 

With tremendous health disparities between subsets of American populations and chronic health conditions such as diabetes on the rise, we must implement policies that will focus on prevention, encourage healthy eating, promote activity, and provide education to the general public.  These policies, as both Michelle Obama and the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning suggest, are imperative to ensure the health and success of future generations!