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The association between father’s social class and adult obesity is not explained by educational attainment and an unhealthy lifestyle in adulthood

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Objectives: To investigate the effect of father’s social class on central and general obesity in adulthood. To test the role of educational attainment and adult health behaviours as mediators in this association. Methods: BMI, Waist-hip-ratio, smoking status, alcohol consumption, leisure-time physical activity and dietary intake (semi-quantitative food-frequency questionnaire) were assessed at phase 5 (1997–1998) of the Whitehall II cohort study. We used retrospective data on educational attainment and father’s social class. Our study sample was 4598 participants (3364 men, 1234 women) aged 44–69, with a valid obesity measure and information on father’s social class and educational attainment. Results: Father’s social class was inversely associated with adult life central (Waist-hip-ratio) and general (BMI) obesity in women but not in men. For example, mean BMI difference between the highest and lowest childhood social class was 2.04 kg/m2 (95% confidence intervals: 0.90; 3.18). These associations remained robust to adjustment for adult life socioeconomic position. Adjusting for educational attainment resulted in a reduction of 10–15% in the difference in mean obesity measures between lowest and highest father’s social class. In our fully adjusted model, adult life health behaviours did not provide further attenuation of the effect of father’s social class on adult obesity. Conclusion: We provide evidence for an independent effect of father’s social class on adult central and general obesity in women, which is not explained by educational attainment and an unhealthy lifestyle in adulthood. Policies aiming at reducing inequalities in obesity should tackle the problem of social inequality early in life.

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Body mass index


Cardiovascular disease


Metabolic equivalent


Registrar General’s Social Classification


Socioeconomic position




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The Whitehall II study was supported by grants from the Medical Research Council; Economic and Social Research Council; British Heart Foundation; Health and Safety Executive; Department of Health; National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (HL36310), US, NIH; National Institute on Aging (AG13196), US, NIH; Agency for Health Care Policy Research (HS06516); and the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation Research Networks on Successful Midlife Development and Socioeconomic Status and Health. We thank all participating civil service departments and their welfare, personnel, and establishment officers; the Occupational Health and Safety Agency; the Council of Civil Service Unions; all participating civil servants in the Whitehall II study; and all members of the Whitehall II study team.

Ethical approval: University College London Medical School committee on the ethics of human research.

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Correspondence to Alexandros Heraclides.

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Heraclides, A., Witte, D. & Brunner, E.J. The association between father’s social class and adult obesity is not explained by educational attainment and an unhealthy lifestyle in adulthood. Eur J Epidemiol 23, 573–579 (2008).

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