Over the past 40 years a global discourse on population obesity has emerged, with moral outrage surrounding the rise in childhood obesity during this time. Women are portrayed as predominantly to blame for the intergenerational transmission of obesity, due to gender norms emphasising maternal responsibility during early-life events. Through a structured review of recent studies exploring epigenetic and social mechanisms of obesity risk transmission, we argue that the role of the father in influencing the obesity risk of children during early life is underappreciated. Paternal actions, embedded within a structural network of the social determinants of health, operate both pre-conception to induce epigenetic changes to the spermatozoa and during the gestational period to influence developmental programming. Paternal contributions influenced by social structures including poor diet and stress influence the subsequent metabolic functioning of the child. An examination of epigenetic pathways, operating at the nexus of genomics and human behaviour, sheds new light on shared parental responsibility for the intergenerational origins of obesity. These emergent findings call into question the effectiveness of early-life obesity interventions that focus exclusively on the mother. More broadly, an examination of the epigenetics of obesity reveals a two-way dynamic between social processes and genomic health information. On the one hand, epigenetic pathways could be an explanatory link between the social determinants of health and physiological outcomes such as obesity. Conversely, a critical appraisal of how this emerging epigenetics knowledge is debated and employed can highlight the very processes that reinforce existing gender disparities in the social determinants of health framework. Ultimately this critical appraisal could lead to a reconfiguration of research and health services agendas, towards more equitable responsibilities across genders for preventing obesity.
Soc Sci Med
Developmental programming, Early-life interventions, Epigenetics, Gender bias, Maternal blame, Obesity, Paternal influence, Social determinants of health