Of all people, Brent Trenga would seem to be among the last person in the Lowcountry to experience what a lot of American fathers do: gain weight.
After all, the 36-year-old sustainability consultant is married to a personal trainer and fitness model, Monica Compton Trenga, and both live and breathe physical fitness.
But months after Monica delivered their first child, Claudia, on Jan. 16, Brent put nearly 20 pounds on his 6-foot-2 frame, going from 188 to 205 pounds. He didn’t realize he had gained the weight until he tried to put on a pair of slim-fitting jeans.
“I went, ‘Whoa, these don’t fit,’ ” says Trenga, adding that he hadn’t weighed more than 200 pounds since he was in college and was purposely trying to “bulk up” with muscle weight.
News of the first longitudinal study on fatherhood and weight gain dovetailed with the newest “hot” physique trend this summer: “the Dad Bod.” This term, which happened to be coined by Clemson University student Mackenzie Pearson earlier this year, went viral on the Internet.
Her definition of Dad Bod is men who have “a nice balance between a beer gut and working out.” Celebrity examples of Dad Bods ensued with images of shirtless, doughy stars such as Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio and Adam Sandler, showing up on gossipy web sites.
Humor aside, the study underscored the seriousness of a problem that is more often focused on the mothers.
The study, performed by researchers at Northwestern Medicine, followed 10,000 men over 20 years, starting in 1994 when they were between the ages of 12 and 21. By 2008, a third had become fathers and had gained 4.4 pounds. Those who did not have children lost 1.4 pounds.
The study’s lead author, Dr. Craig Garfield of Northwestern University, said he could only speculate about what’s behind the extra pounds.
“For men who become fathers, their whole life changes,” Garfield says. In an interview with The Associated Press Garfield noted fathers may sleep less, exercise less, and experience more stress, all of which can lead to weight gain, he said.
It doesn’t help that the food selection at home may gradually change to include more things like “making chocolate chip cookies with the kids,” said Garfield. A dad himself, Garfield said his weakness is finishing his kids’ leftover cheese pizza.
Numerous other studies have connected weight gain to fatherhood, but this is the first of its kind to look at BMI, which can be an indicator of one’s proportion of body fat and point to potential health problems.
The researchers found that the BMI for dads living with their kids increased by 2.6 percent, while the BMI of dads who lived elsewhere increased by 2 percent. The higher the BMI, the more the men are at risk for diseases like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.
The researchers only collected numbers; they didn’t try to explain their findings. But they mention some potential guesses, like dads who nosh on their kids’ leftovers or put off exercise in favor of spending more time with kids.
While that weight gain may not seem significant, Dr. Josh Brown of the Medical University of South Carolina Weight Management Center says it is.
“It’s somewhat of a wake-up call,” says Brown, himself a father of three under the age of 5. “Until now, no one’s ever looked at or singled out fatherhood’s effect on men’s weight. ... We do see and hear from our patients how weight gain happens after they become parents.”
Brown says many blame the weight gain on more responsibilities, less time and additional stress.
What a lot of the national media attention to the Dad Bod study ignored, however, is how it’s easier to keep from gaining weight than it is to lose it.
“Once weight has been gained, it’s generally easier to regain it. The body attempts to defend weight loss due to physiological changes that takes place in it,” says Brown, adding that people gain fat cells that they can shrink but never get rid of.
Brown points to two studies published in the last four years demonstrating how hormonal changes after weight gain make losing weight, permanently, difficult.
Attorney Jody McKnight, whose children are grown, is 51 and been-there, done-that. He looks at the issue with perspective.
“Nurturing, good dads can get fat if they don’t stay fit and put fitness as a priority. The dad in the gym with a 12-pack stomach has his focus in the gym and himself, not the best for mom and kids,” says McKnight, noting that it’s a “balancing act.”
“Fitness is fleeting, but memories are forever. You can lose fat, but men can’t get back their memories with family,” says McKnight.
He also noted a study that indicated that testosterone, that most male of hormones, also takes a dive after a man becomes a father.
The Canadian study in 2011 suggested that men’s bodies evolved hormonal systems that helped them commit to their families once children were born. It also suggests that men’s behavior can affect hormonal signals their bodies send, not just that hormones influence behavior. And, experts say, it underscores that mothers were meant to have child care help.
Quoted in the Sept. 29, 2011, edition of The New York Times, Harvard evolutionary biologist Dr. Peter Ellison says the study, which he was not involved with, pointed to the importance of male parental care.
“It’s important enough that it’s actually shaped the physiology of men,” says Ellison, adding that “unfortunately, American males have been brainwashed to believe (lower testosterone means) maybe you’re a wimp.”
After Trenga couldn’t squeeze into his skinny jeans, he resolved to burn off the weight, squeezing in workouts in 30 to 45 minutes instead of the hour to hour and a half that it used to take. He also got back to playing hockey a few times a week.
He’s now weighs 186 pounds, two pounds lighter than his pre-father weight.
“I’ve had to become more focused and more efficient,” says Trenga. “There’s no more talking, no more time for bull in the gym anymore.”
Reach David Quick at 937-5516.