Have you heard about Maggie, who wants to drop a few pounds? Tired of being called fat, she embarks on a diet that helps her to succeed in sports and become popular. It may surprise you to learn that Maggie is a fictitious 14-year-old, star of the book Maggie Goes on a Diet. Aimed at young readers, the book and its premise ignited such an uproar that author Paul Kramer retitled the book Maggie Eats Healthier, acknowledging it could be the most controversial children’s book in years.
Maggie and her make-believe body image issues didn’t come as a surprise to me. As the mother of a 12-year-old, I have already had many conversations about looks, health and growing up. I’ll never forget the first time my oldest, then in kindergarten, asked me if she was fat.
“Of course not!” I said. Where in the world did she get that idea? Unfortunately, she got it from me and the million messages she sees out in the world every day. For the record, my daughter is tiny. But I realized by watching me, she got the message that “thin is in.” I exercise and lift weights, and am probably in better shape than many other 40-somethings. But I have vanity pounds I’d like to lose, and look at myself critically in the mirror when trying on clothes – I’m sure she picked up on that. I tell my children they are perfect the way they are (they are!) but how do you walk the line between encouraging healthy habits and creating a generation of neurotics?
There is no doubt that childhood obesity is on the rise. The Center for Disease Control reports that childhood obesity has more than tripled over the past 30 years. With that excess body fat comes health risks, including prediabetes, sleep apnea and other disorders as children become adults.
"It is important that children and adolescents understand how to fuel their bodies properly," says Julie Russell, outpatient dietician at Blanchard Valley Health System. Her mantra? All food is okay, in the right amounts.
“There are no bad foods,” she says. “Being active and healthy – that’s what I focus on. My goal is to not put them on a diet and be restrictive.”
We all know how to eat healthier. We know that eating an apple for a snack is a smarter choice than a bowl of ice cream. We can still have that bowl of ice cream, just not every night. Parents should provide healthy choices and let the children decide among those choices. A Happy Meal now and again won’t kill anyone, just balance it with healthier choices the rest of the time. Forget the clean plate club as well. Children are good regulators of when they feel satisfied from a meal. Let them listen to those signals and don’t force them to eat.
And if they read about Maggie, talk about the book and its message.