September 24, 2011

A Weight Loss Book For Children

Maggie has so much potential that has been hiding under her extra weight. This inspiring story is about a 14-year-old who goes on a diet and is transformed from being overweight and insecure to a normal sized teen who becomes the school soccer star. Through time, exercise and hard work, Maggie becomes more and more confident and develops a positive self-image.”


On the surface, this concept may seem like a good idea; its common knowledge that childhood obesity is a problem.  I am an advocate for helping children and teens reach and maintain a healthy weight.  You’ve heard the stats:  

"Childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years. The prevalence of obesity among children aged 6 to 11 years increased from 6.5% in 1980 to 19.6% in 2008. The prevalence of obesity among adolescents aged 12 to 19 years increased from 5.0% to 18.1%.
  • Obese youth are more likely to have risk factors for cardiovascular disease, such as high cholesterol or high blood pressure. In a population-based sample of 5- to 17-year-olds, 70% of obese youth had at least one risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
  • Children and adolescents who are obese are at greater risk for bone and joint problems, sleep apnea, and social and psychological problems such as stigmatization and poor self-esteem.
  • Obese youth are more likely than youth of normal weight to become overweight or obese adults, and therefore more at risk for associated adult health problems, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, several types of cancer, and osteoarthritis.
Healthy lifestyle habits, including healthy eating and physical activity, can lower the risk of becoming obese and developing related diseases."

Straight from the mouths of CDC.   

But let me ask you, what is your definition of “positive self-image”?  If it’s going on a diet to lose weight because a child is being made fun of by kids at school, I’m going to argue with you. 

Of course it is good if teens maintain a healthy weight and are physically active as well as involved in school and sports.  However, a diet book geared towards a  4-8 year old audience about a 14 year old girl who goes on a diet after kids taunt her and call her “chubby” and “fatty” doesn’t seem healthy to me.  In this kids book, Maggie apparently learns about nutrition and physical activity, becomes the school soccer star and gains popularity.  I haven’t read it yet – it is due to come out in October.  Maybe reading it will change my mind, but at this point, I am terrified for any child who picks it up. 

Cynthia Bulik, director of the Eating Disorders Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill sums it perfectly: "We don't want kids to 'go on diets,' we don't want kids to use diet language.  You have to think about how the messages will be interpreted by a child's brain. They will not see any nuance — they will see a causal association between losing weight and becoming popular, pretty and athletic. It emphasizes valuing people for their size and appearance rather than for who they are."

Thank you  Ms. Bulik for being a voice of reason and pointing out that children view weight loss and societal pressures differently from adults (who have a hard enough time with it).  Further, what about the fact that girls often gain weight – a lot of weight – around puberty which is NORMAL?  What about the fact that we don’t need to be changing our physical appearance because of the way someone else feels about our bodies (or boys that taunt)? 

Here is what I would say to 14-year old Maggie if I had her in front of me:

Hey Maggie,

I’m proud of you for becoming interested in good nutrition and for discovering how fun sports can be.   It sounds like you’re doing really well! 

I just want to check in with you to see how you are doing with all this change.  How are your grades in school?  Do you have friends to hang out with?  There are things in life that, hard as it seems right now, may be more important than the way you look.   I heard that some boys called you “chubby”.  That must have been really hurtful.   Maybe we could talk about some ways to deal with bullies. 

Going on a diet is not necessarily what you want to be focusing on at this point.  What are your favorite foods?  How do you feel about food?  How are your hunger levels?  Maybe we could talk about some foods that are healthy for you and support your activity level while playing soccer.  A student athlete needs a lot of good foods to fuel their activity. 
Maggie, I would hate to see you on a diet for the rest of your life.  I would hate for you to associate being skinny with being liked.  Too many people live this way, unhappily.  Can we rename your "book, “Maggie Discovers Soccer” or “Maggie Discovers Spinach” instead?  Maybe, "Maggie Stands Up to a Bully" or “Maggie Finds Happiness just the way she is”? 

Maggie, I wish you luck.  But let me just tell you, if you were my child, you would NEVER be on a diet.  Never. 

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