Opinion

Diets for kindergartners? | Amy Johnson

Paul Kramer’s soon-to-be-released book, “Maggie Goes on a Diet,” may have a teenage protagonist, but the book has a 4-8-year-old reading level on Amazon.com and is written in rhyme, targeting this book at a much younger audience than 14-year-old “Maggie.”

In a country where over a third of adults and 17 percent of children ages 2-19 are obese, some might be tempted to think a diet book for kindergarten girls is a good idea.

“Perhaps Kramer, as a dude, is unfamiliar with the horrendous psychic weight that one word, ‘diet,’ carries for so many females,” writes Mary Elizabeth Williams in a review. You see, almost 40 percent of American girls ages 9 and 10 are either now or have been on a diet in the past. And check this out: eating disorders in children under 12 years old have risen 119 percent in the past decade, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Obviously, we need help. But will a rhyming book for young girls about diets do the trick?

The word “diet” should be “stricken from a parent’s vocabulary. Healthy eating is a family affair, and the parent is the one who makes buying decisions for snacks and meals,” says Toni Schutta of Families First Coaching.

Dieting, apparently, does not necessarily make one healthy. Or thin. In fact, according to Karen Schatner, an expert in the psychology of eating: “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.”

“Dieting implies that we are not good enough, that our bodies define us, and are the only things we are judged by,” says Janice Sack-Ory, a Federal Way nurse-midwife and yoga therapist. “Making healthy choices, on the other hand, implies wisdom in knowing what our bodies need to move us through life with optimal wellness.”

How do we balance this information with the fact that obesity rates in Washington have climbed to over 25 percent since 1986? We focus on healthy eating habits and exercise as a lifestyle.

“Helping our daughters connect with their inner wisdom can have long-term consequences for learning to listen to their inner voice when it comes to drugs, alcohol, sex, and other potentially risky behaviors,” Sack-Ory says.

“Girls have enough trouble loving their bodies. If we are reading books to them about dieting when they are 6, it further pushes the idea that the way to be happy, loved, and accepted is to be thin,” says my colleague Amy Lang, Seattle Parent and Sexual Health Educator.

Personally, I’ve counseled way too many girls over the years who have turned to sex — when what they were really looking for was a way to be loved and accepted. Diets won’t fix that. They never have.

My recipe for healthy bodies? Well, it’s not reading a rhyming children’s book with a forlorn chubby girl on the cover looking at her thin reflection in a mirror. Instead, take a look at the free resources available on letsmove.gov or letsdothiskingcounty.gov. Both sites are user-friendly and contain easy tips for parents, kids, and community members to create healthier eating and exercise habits — no matter what your age or gender.

And don’t forget a healthy dose of free love — the kind lavished on children for being who they are, not given only because of what they do or how they look. Focus on healthy choices, make small changes over time, and feed yourself a steady diet of messages that support your health. It’s up to you if they rhyme or not.

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