A book intended to help children that’s due to be published this fall has already sparked a controversy in parenting and health circles. “Maggie Goes on a Diet,” (Aloha Publishers, October 2011) tells the story of a 14-year-old girl who is overweight and unhappy. The girl diets, loses weight and finds success and popularity in school.
Author Paul Kramer has said his intent was to write a story with an important message to children about eating properly and maintaining a healthy physique, especially given the obesity epidemic. But his little book has landed with a loud thud. Experts have almost universally condemned it as sending the wrong message.
One of those critics is Karen Schachter, a Washington expert in the psychology of eating who runs Dishing With Your Daughter, a program of coaching, classes and workshops for mothers and daughters on healthy eating and body image.
I asked her why she thinks “Maggie Goes on a Diet,” and its encouragement of dieting, is misguided.
“I would not recommend a diet book for any young girl, especially one that promotes a message of thin equals popular; overweight equal lonely and unpopular. This is not how to teach girls (or anyone ) about taking care of their bodies, eating for health, or feeling good about themselves,” Schachter wrote me.
Below are more of Schachter’s thoughts on dieting and tips for a healthier way to encourage good nutrition and exercise:
“First, at its most benign level, diets simply don’t work. Research suggests that something like 95 percent of people who actually lose weight on a diet, end up gaining it back within a couple of years or sooner. When the “diet cycle”(which is marked by feeling deprived, developing cravings, feeling guilty and ashamed, overeating, and then starting again with a new diet) begins in childhood, it can set the stage for a lifelong struggle with weight, chronic dieting, overeating, low self-esteem, and weight and food obsession. Many of the women I’ve worked with point to their first diet as the beginning of their chronic struggles with weight and eating.
Secondly, most girls already know how to diet. They are already well-versed in the “culture of skinny” and body hatred. According to The Council on Size & Weight Discrimination, 50 percent of 9-year-old girls and 80 percent of 10-year-old girls have already dieted, while 90 percent of junior and senior high school girls diet regularly. Another diet book is the last thing our girls need.
On a more concerning level, a diet in a vulnerable girl can trigger a dangerous eating disorder. Although we’ve seen a rise in rates of childhood obesity, the rates of eating disorders have also skyrocketed and are affecting younger and younger girls.”
Schachter also offered guidance on how to help a child or teen lose weight in a healthy way:
1) Don’t single out your daughter. Healthy changes should occur within the whole family.
2) Focus on adding in healthy foods, rather than taking away favorites right away. By adding healthy foods in, you can eventually “crowd out” the less healthy ones.
3) Become aware of how processed foods and sugars affect your daughter’s brain chemistry. These foods can be highly addictive, making it very hard to recognize fullness.
4) Focus on health and nourishment rather than weight. Remind your daughter that a well-nourished, healthy body will find its natural weight.
5) If you sense that your child is eating for emotional reasons (stress, worry or sadness), help her begin to express them in words.
6) Take a look at your own eating habits and make sure you’re modeling good health.
7) Get moving as a family. Sometimes the word “exercise” can sound punitive. Just go out and have fun: a bike ride, a hike, dancing.
— From Karen Schachter of Dishing With Your Daughters.