Dangerous? Book About Dieting Teen Targets Kids 6-12

Author of books on contemporary kids' issues misses mark, nutritionist says.

ByJane E. Allen, Abc News Medical Unit
August 18, 2011, 4:25 PM

Aug. 19, 2011— -- A children's picture book in which a pudgy 14-year-old girl gets thin enough eventually to become her school's soccer star has come under attack before anyone has cracked open a copy.

"Maggie Goes on a Diet" won't be released until October, but Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com are among booksellers taking advance orders for the 44-page hardcover. Barnes & Noble's website says the book is for young readers 6 to 12; Amazon's site says ages 4 to 8.

Maggie's weight-loss journey is told in one of several self-published children's books in which author Paul M. Kramer tackles what he calls "the issues that kids face today."

He wrote about bullying in the 2010 title, "Bullies Beware!" and tried to help kids deal with bed-wetting and divorce in "Do Not Dread Wetting the Bed," and, "Divorce Stinks!," both due out this fall. The books are written in rhyme and meant to be read by parents alongside their kids.

According to a plot summary, Maggie "goes on a diet and is transformed from being extremely overweight and insecure to a normal sized girl who becomes the school soccer star. Through time, exercise and hard work, Maggie becomes more and more confident and develops a positive self image."

But that storybook plotline doesn't reflect what happens in real children's lives, warned Joanne Ikeda, a nutritionist emeritus at University of California-Berkeley.

Highlighting imperfections in a boy's or girl's body "does not empower a child to adopt good eating habits," Ikeda said.

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.

Furthermore, role models like Maggie can perpetuate the idea that "if you don't look like Cinderella, you're a failure," Ikeda said. "I wouldn't want a child to read this ... because they might, in fact, try to do this and fail. What is that going to do to their self-esteem?"

Ikeda spoke Thursday without seeing the book.

A day earlier, a blog article appeared in the British newspaper The Guardian under the headline: "A diet book for six-year-old girls: the worst idea ever?"

Feature writer Laura Barnett wrote that she objected to the cover illustration of a dumpy, frumpy pigtailed teen holding a pink party dress clearly meant for someone half her size, while gazing into a mirror featuring her smiling, slimmed-down doppelganger.

Barnett said she found the cover image "so disquieting … that perhaps we may, in this case, allow ourselves to judge the book by it."

Readers posted more than 125 online responses. Far more attacked the book for feeding an unhealthy obsession with weight than supported its attempt to stem the epidemic of youngsters' growing girth.

Kramer, a New York native who has made a second career in Hawaii writing children's books he self-publishes through Aloha Publishing, could not be reached for comment Thursday despite repeated attempts to reach him through e-mail, Facebook and Aloha Publishing phone listings. He is married and has a son.

Nutritionist Calls Book 'Well-Intentioned But Misguided'

Richard Lowe, an account manager for the National Book Network in Lanham, Md., which handles sales and distribution for Aloha, said he hadn't yet read the book. However, he called Kramer "really passionate about what he's doing. In Hawaii, he goes around to schools and does presentations and he likes working with kids."

Ikeda, the co-founding director of UC Berkeley's Center on Weight and Health, described Kramer's response to the public health perils of pediatric obesity as "well-intentioned but very misguided. It reminds me of the old saying, 'fools rush in where angels fear to tread.' It's unfortunate that he didn't consult with people experienced in treating pediatric overweight."

Nutritionists and pediatricians today encourage overweight youngsters to eat a good, balanced diet and exercise regularly, rather than become caught up in weight-loss plans.

The idea that a child of 6 to 10 might read a book about dieting and try to emulate the main character runs counter to the policies of mainstream plans like Weight Watchers. Weight Watchers excludes from its weekly meetings any children under the age of 10, and only admits those 10 to 16 "with a doctor's note identifying the weight goal for the child."

Youngsters must be at least 13 to participate in Weight Watchers' newer online program.

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."

In her own study of women carrying around hundreds of extra pounds, Ikeda found that the heaviest among them "had actually started dieting before they were 13."

Extreme weight fluctuations from years of yo-yo dieting can be downright dangerous, Ikeda said, and "contribute to increased risk of obesity, coronary heart disease and hypertension."

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