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New book about child dieting is sparking furor

Dominika Osmolska Psy.D.'s picture

The book is due to be released in October. The author is self-publishing. And already there is a media storm about the controversy surrounding the subject: dieting for children. In our world in which a quarter of all children are suffering from being overweight or obese, is a book about dieting a good idea? Most pundits out there say no. Let’s take a look at this latest debate.

The book, titled Maggie Goes On A Diet by author Paul Kramer, is being targeted to the 6-12 age group, although some outlets are listing the lower age cutoff at 4. Presumably, it addresses primarily girls, as the star of the story is female. Kramer feels that most of his audience will be teens or “tweens” – those on the cusp of adolescence, but judging by the book’s cover and title, I doubt any self-respecting tween is going to touch it. Clearly, the language and illustrations are geared toward a younger set. Which brings us to the important question: should 6 or 7-year-old girls be reading about how to go on a diet?

Kramer defends his book by saying that it helps girls make healthy eating choices. "My intentions were just to write a story to entice and to have children feel better about themselves, discover a new way of eating, learn to do exercise, try to emulate Maggie and learn from Maggie's experience," Kramer told "Good Morning America" today. "Children are pretty smart ... and they will make a good choice if you give them that opportunity."

The book starts with an overweight Maggie who is teased and made fun of at school, and seeks comfort in food. Maggie then presumably reflects on her reaction, resolves to cope in a more constructive way and goes on a diet. It ends with a fit, healthy Maggie who is the school's soccer star. The thinner, more popular Maggie is more self-confident and has a more positive self-image.

"Maggie is accepting that kids are mean and kids can be mean and she has decided to do something about it, to take things in her own hands, try to change her own life, try to make herself healthy by exercising. She does want to look better. She does want to feel better and she does not want to be teased," Kramer said.

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Kramer feels that the word “diet” has sparked all the controversy and that had he used something along the lines of “healthy eating” it would not have spurred the storm. The problem with that, says Kramer, is that it would not have attracted the attention of youngsters who are struggling with weight.

"If I entitled the book 'Maggie Eats Healthy,' somebody in a bookstore ... is really not going to identify with someone who has been overweight, who has health problems," Kramer said. "Diet is a kind of a misconstrued word, and it has many, many meanings."

Most weight-loss experts and children’s advocates are fuming. Some are calling for a boycott of the book. Joanne Ikeda, the co-founding director of the University of California at Berkeley's Center on Weight and Health, says that highlighting imperfections in a boy's or girl's body does not empower a child to adopt good eating habits. In real life, dieting down to a smaller clothing size doesn't guarantee living happily ever after.

"Body dissatisfaction is a major risk for eating disorders in children all the way up through adulthood," she said.

Even Weight Watchers does not admit anyone under 10 to its program, and when it does admit 10 to 16-year-olds, it is only with the written permission of a doctor. For boys and girls who haven't yet passed through puberty, cutting calories poses "the danger of stunting growth and height," Ikeda said. "As a consequence, most responsible health professionals would not recommend dieting, even for overweight children. There's usually the strategy of trying to help children grow into their weight."

Pediatric obesity literature contains cases "where children restricted their calorie intake because they were so afraid of becoming fat that they actually slowed down their growth curve," she said. In addition, some researchers have reported that dieting among teenage girls "leads to greater risk of overweight than among girls who don't diet during their teenage years."

Let’s face it, besides sending the wrong message, a book about dieting is going to carry an enormous stigma for kids already sensitive about their size. Can you picture this being cozy bedtime reading with your youngster? An overzealous focus on thinking about weight is sure to send many a little girl down the road to an eating disorder. Healthy eating support for kids is simple: perseverance, diet and lifestyle modification, and role-modeling from their significant adults – in as low a key as they can manage.