'Maggie Goes on a Diet' Author Defends Controversial Teen Dieting Book

Paul Kramer Defends Book 'Maggie Goes on a Diet.'

August 23, 2011, 8:34 AM

Aug. 23, 2011 — -- Author Paul Kramer defended his controversial children's book "Maggie Goes on a Diet" by saying a book about a dieting teenage girl helps kids make healthy 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."

Kramer's book won't be released until October, but it's already generated controversy. Negative comments from worried parents and weight-loss experts about the book's weight-loss message have flooded the Internet.

One person wrote, "Terrible reflection on our society, boycott the book. ... This is awful."

The book starts with an overweight Maggie who is teased and made fun of at school, and seeks comfort in food. 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.

The picture book targets young readers. Barnes & Noble's website says the book is for readers 6 to 12 years old; Amazon's site says ages 4 to 8.

Kramer knows that using the word "diet" in the book's title can be risky.

"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."

Kramer, a New York native, has made a second career in Hawaii writing children's books he self-publishes through Aloha Publishing,

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

He wrote about bullying in the 2010's "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.

Logan Levkoff, a relationship expert and author of "Third Base Ain't What it Used to Be," said that the "Maggie Goes on a Diet" does do good by sparking a conversation with children.

"The only upside to this book is that it gives us an opportunity to talk about how bad our priorities are and give us the opportunity to change them and to say to our kids, this is now who I want you to be," Levkoff said.

Weight-Loss Experts Challenge "Maggie Goes on a Diet"

Weight-loss experts say that the storybook plotline doesn't reflect what happens in real children's lives. Joanne Ikeda is the co-founding director of the University of California at Berkeley's Center on Weight and Health.

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.

Experts Say 'Maggie Goes on a Diet' Sends Dangerous Message to Kids

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 to ABCNews.com without seeing the book.

She 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."

Kramer argues that people are judging a book by its cover instead of waiting to read the book when it comes out.

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