Book weighs heavily on childhood obesity


Experts condemn a book before it hits the shelves, writes MICHELLE McDONAGH

A CONTROVERSIAL new children’s storybook about a girl who transforms her life by going on a diet has been condemned by parents and health experts around the world – before it has even hit the shelves.

The book, Maggie Goes on a Diet, written by US self-publishing children’s author and dad Paul M Kramer, will not be published until October, but Amazon and Barnes and Noble are taking advance orders for the book on their websites.

The hardcover book, which is aimed at six to 12 year olds, tells the story of a 14-year-old girl who goes on a diet and “is transformed from being extremely overweight and insecure to a normal-sized girl who becomes the school soccer star”.

The book’s overview explains: “Through time, exercise and hard work, Maggie becomes more and more confident and develops a positive self-image.”

The front cover shows an overweight girl looking into a mirror and seeing a much slimmer version of herself.

The book is one of a series in which Kramer tackles what he says are “the issues that kids face today” and includes Bullies Beware, Do Not Dread Wetting the Bed and Divorce Stinks.

Defending his choice of words in the title on Good Morning America last week, the author said the word “diet” was needed for people to connect to the book as not many people could relate to the word “healthy”.

Joanne Ikeda, a nutritionist emeritus at University of California-Berkeley, warns that the storybook plot line does not reflect what happens in real children’s lives. In real life, she points out, dieting down to a smaller clothing size does not guarantee living happily ever after.

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

While the full text of the book is not yet available, Daniel McCartney, lecturer in human nutrition and dietetics at Dublin Institute of Technology and public-relation officer for the Irish Nutrition and Dietetics Institute, says even the title and the target audience would elicit disquiet among many dietitians.

“While we recognise that childhood obesity and obesity in general is an important public health issue, I am not sure this is the best way to address it,” he says.

“You run a number of risks, the main one being to stigmatise children who are overweight and exacerbate whatever sort of inadequacies and differences they might already feel from their peers.”

McCartney points out that many young girls have a distorted body image and may not have the capacity to differentiate between what is overweight and a normal body weight.

A book about a teenage girl dieting might encourage children of normal weight to try to lose weight, which could be dangerous, he warns.

“There have certainly been examples of children in Ireland and the UK developing eating disorders as young as five, six or seven and it’s important to keep this in mind when a publication like this finds its way into the public domain.

“It would be much better if the book took a more holistic point of view and focused on measures by which weight loss could be achieved safely such as increasing exercise and eating healthy food.”

Ruth Ní Eidhin, communications officer with Bodywhys, the Eating Disorders Association of Ireland, expresses concern about the language being used in the book and the young age of the target audience.

“Our concern is about the way the language is being framed. It’s not called Maggie Gets Healthy or Maggie Gets Active, it’s focused on a diet.

“The word diet does not usually mean a balanced approach, the focus is usually on weight loss as opposed to getting healthier.”

Children and teenagers should be putting weight on up to the point of adulthood within a healthy range, points out Ní Eidhin, and should not be restricting their diet unless under medical supervision.