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Children’s Diet Book Sends Wrong Message to Kids

Why a controversial book may do more harm than good.

Weight and size are hot-button issues these days. It doesn’t take a genius to see we put size zero models and actresses on the same pedestal as muscle-bound athletes. Studies show thinner adults are more successful and make more money. Then there are the assumptions and portrayals in movies and television shows of overweight and obese people as being lazy and stupid.

Some people like food, others don’t know any better and are simply uneducated. But a larger percentage of overweight people have emotional problems tied to food. The differences with someone growing up using food for fuel and someone using food as a coping mechanism have a whole lot to do with their childhood. If a parent had emotional issues with food, chances are the child is going to adopt the same habits. Sometimes food is used in place of love and other times it’s used as a reward.

Childhood obesity is not a matter to take lightly. But attacking the issue with a book that encourages young children to diet is not the way to go.

“Maggie Goes on a Diet”  hits bookstores in October. The book, by author Paul Michael Kramer, centers on a 14-year-old girl named Maggie who is overweight and does not like herself. So, she goes on a diet, works out, loses weight and becomes a soccer star. The book ends with Maggie successful and happy with her new size. Kramer’s book is recommended for children ages 6-12.

While the book may have good intentions, the way the story unfolds does more detriment than good. Most nutritionists will tell you if a child is overweight to focus on eating healthier as a family, cooking more meals, teaching him/her to make better choices, finding ways to be more active, encouraging him/her to take up a sport and curtailing television time. A combination of all those things will lead to weight loss. More movement and less food will always equal a number drop on the scale.

Instead of Maggie choosing carrot sticks over potato chips and taking walks after dinner, the focus is on going on a diet.  A diet is restrictive. You can only have some foods. A diet often eliminates food groups. If you stick to the plan you are “good,” but if you fall off the wagon you are “worthless.” Healthy eating leads to a lifestyle change, whereas a diet sets you up for an emotional roller coaster with the potential to last your lifetime.

The director for UC Berkeley’s Center for Health and Weight says, "In [my] own study of women carrying around hundreds of extra pounds, [I] found that the heaviest among them had actually started dieting before they were 13."

Then there is the whole issue that when Maggie loses the weight, her life becomes perfect. She goes from an unhappy overweight teen to the school soccer star. The idea that being thin will make you perfect is what many anorexic and bulimic patients believe. Not all eating disorders stem from this perception, but if you read any literature on eating disorders you will see perfectionism as a reoccurring theme in the lives of people who deal with this disease. Maggie is depressed when she is overweight and happy when she is thin. This reinforces the message that for anyone in our society to be happy, successful and popular, they have to be a certain size.

Childhood obesity is not an issue a parent should ignore. But this book does not teach any skills to help a child look at food and exercise in a healthy manner. It sets up unrealistic expectations for young kids that they need to look a certain way to be happy. If any parent is concerned about their child’s weight, whether it’s too much or too little, consult with a registered dietitian, possibly a psychologist and your family pediatrician.

Finally, teach your child that self worth does not have to be tied to appearance. That’s not an easy message to get across. But the gift of self confidence is one of the most beneficial you can ever pass along to your child. Plus, it’s something that will improve the child’s life.

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