Maggie and the four-letter word: What a children’s book can teach us about food and fitness

A new children’s book has ignited a firestorm centering on children and diets – and what the relationship between the two should (or shouldn’t) be. Dr. David Katz explains what a healthy relationship between food and fitness really looks like for young people.

It seems as though a new book is about to be added to the “Most Controversial” list. And it may surprise you to learn it’s not at all similar to Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn or J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Instead, the newest source of turmoil, is a recently published illustrated children’s book (written in rhyme, no less!) titled Maggie Goes On a Diet by Paul Kramer.

According to the book’s description, the 14-year-old title character, unhappy and insecure because she is overweight, decides to take charge. Maggie begins to exercise regularly, eat healthier foods and eventually becomes a popular member of a soccer team. She learns you can achieve any goal with hard work and determination. So why all the uproar?

“Essentially, the public is outraged because this book’s title contains the word ‘diet’ and is aimed at young girls (and presumably boys, too),” says Dr. David Katz, the senior medical advisor at MindStream Academy, a co-ed health and wellness boarding school for teens who want to get fit, lose weight, build self-esteem, better manage stress, and take control over their health and wellness destinies.

“The prevailing opinion is encouraging kids to diet will lower their self-esteem, cause them to develop unhealthy habits, and maybe even spark weight-related neuroses,” he explains.

In fact, for example, some readers have already tagged Maggie Goes On a Diet with incendiary phrases including “teaching kids to self-hate,” “anorexia bait,” “if you hate your daughter,” “body fascism,” “fat shaming,” and many, many  more.

“Those armchair critics may be right,” Katz continues, “which is unfortunate, because when you take away that one inflammatory word from the book’s title – diet – its message is fairly solid.”

Katz believes the takeaway is clear: The words we use and the way in which we frame issues are very powerful. Maggie’s story is full of good information, but the operative word used to describe her quest – diet – is surrounded by negative connotations parents quite rightly don’t want their children to take to heart.

“As a parent,” Katz says, “it’s important to know how to communicate the importance of a healthy lifestyle to your children (which Maggie Goes On a Diet seems to get right) without perpetuating the stigma and obsession with thinness dieting sparks (which is why the book is so controversial).”

Here are four powerful things to keep in mind when it comes to shaping how your kids see their bodies and their health.

• The power of words. We all know words have the power to hurt just as much as sticks and stones do. And as the controversy over Maggie Goes On a Diet demonstrates, “diet” is a very inflammatory word indeed. To some extent, it does imply a person’s current weight and/or appearance isn’t OK, and it’s true diets often do spark unhealthy obsessions with food, body image issues, eating disorders and more. That’s why Katz recommends making “diet” a four-letter word in your home, never to be uttered.

“Don’t ever refer to weight loss in your home as a ‘diet,’ whether it’s your kids, you or both who are trying to shed pounds,” he confirms. “The damage you might be doing to your kids far outweighs any changes you might achieve on the scales. Plus, the big problem with going on a diet is you’re on again, off again. Most diets are by definition not sustainable. I think we can all agree the notion of a child going on a diet, rather than living a healthy lifestyle, is deeply concerning.”

• The power of the message. Not using the word “diet” is a good start in helping your children to develop a good attitude toward their health, but the absence of one word isn’t enough to achieve that goal. You must also make sure the overall message you send to your children regarding weight and health is affirming and positive. Start by realizing our society is too preoccupied with weight in general, and avoid defining your kids and their goals (and also yourself) in terms of pounds.

“Never send your kids the message they need to lose weight, get thinner, drop pounds, look better or other,” Katz specifies. “If you do, they’ll still develop unhealthy attitudes even if you never so much as utter the d-word. Instead, always frame your message in terms of your kids feeling better about themselves, having more energy, becoming healthier and happier and more. These are sustainable goals that won’t damage your child’s self-esteem.”

• The power of motivation. It’s a generally acknowledged truth you’re more likely to do something if it feels like fun as opposed to work. So put principle into action when it comes to helping your kids live a healthy lifestyle and motivate them with things they’ll enjoy instead of saying, for example, “Eat your veggies if you want dessert,” or, “You need to play outside for an hour before you can watch TV.” Let’s face it – those rules just feel like chores. To help get the healthy fun started, here are some creative examples from MindStream:
• Make fitness fun and affordable by giving physical activities a competitive edge. For example, the first one to do this gets this.
• Institute active family traditions such as “Family 5K Fridays” – go to the park together and walk a 5K. Along the way, you can catch up on each other’s weeks and enjoy the great outdoors. You’ll be surprised by how quickly your kids will see these 5Ks as “fun” rather than “exercise.”
• Bring your kids into the kitchen and let them help you create healthy meals. You can explain why the dishes you’re making are nutritious, and your kids will take pride in their creations and want to eat them. To up the ante, you could even have a miniature Iron Chef competition in which everyone has to create a healthy dish using a key ingredient.
• Plan to plant a family garden. Ask your kids to help you water, prune and harvest your crops – you may even allow them to choose what fruits, veggies and herbs to raise. And as with cooking a meal, raising food will cause your kids to feel pride in the harvest and want to eat it.

“When you make exercise and healthy eating fun for your kids, they’ll become lifetime habits – not just a quick weight-loss fix,” says Katz. “Try to help your kids be self-motivated when it comes to their health instead of just following the rules because Mom and Dad say they have to.”

• The power of action. Katz has touched on this point before, but it bears repeating in more depth: Getting healthy and staying that way are not quick fixes. They are lifestyles that depend on taking responsible action consistently. Make sure your kids know when it comes to their health, they won’t get something for nothing (which, funnily enough, is what many diets seemingly promise). To feel good and be healthy in the years to come, your children must understand the power of action.

“Actually, Maggie Goes On a Diet demonstrates the power of action very well,” points out Katz. “Maggie wants to change her habits, get fit and feel better, and she does the work to achieve those goals by using her feet and fork responsibly on a consistent basis. She becomes comfortable with the concept of moderation, and of balancing treats with exercise. Not understanding these things has played a big role in why our nation has become unhealthy and overweight – we want a quick fix and are willing to temporarily engage in extreme behaviors, but we aren’t willing to permanently change our actions.”

“Ultimately, you can help your children achieve the results Maggie did – a healthy body, higher self-esteem and sustainable habits – without embroiling them in the controversy her story has caused,” concludes Katz. “It’s too bad the book wasn’t titled Maggie Takes Charge of Her Health!”

About the author:

As one of the leading international authorities on nutrition, weight management and the prevention of chronic disease, Dr. David Katz is in the trenches of the war against childhood obesity. In fact, he warned us many years ago that today’s younger generation will not live as long or as healthfully as their parents. Katz is also a prolific author, having published more than 120 scientific papers, numerous textbook chapters, nearly a thousand newspaper columns and a dozen books to date. In 2009 he was nominated for the position of U.S. Surgeon General to the Obama Administration by the American College of Physicians, the American College of Preventive Medicine and the Center for Science in the Public Interest, among other national and international health organizations. He is also the founding director of Yale University Prevention Research Center, director and founder of Integrative Medicine Center at Griffin Hospital, president of Turn the Tide Foundation Inc. and editor-in-chief of the Childhood Obesity journal.

About MindStream Academy:
MindStream Academy is a full-service boarding school on a pristine 43-acre horse farm in South Carolina for teens and tweens who want to get healthy, fit, lose weight, take control of their lives, build self-esteem and pursue a personal passion.

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