Family Matters

The Very Hungry Caterpillar: A Dubious Weapon in the War on Childhood Obesity

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The Very Hungry Caterpillar is one of those children’s classics, along with Goodnight Moon and Where the Wild Things Are, that belong on every kid’s bookshelf. Written and illustrated by Eric Carle, it’s the story of a ravenous caterpillar who munches his way through an obscene amount of food — some healthy, some not — en route to becoming a beautiful butterfly.

Now the American Academy of Pediatrics and with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation have decided that distributing lots and lots of copies of Carle’s beloved book is an effective way to foil childhood obesity.

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Um, have they read the book? The cute green caterpillar first attempts to sate his hunger with one apple, then two pears, followed by three plums, four strawberries and five oranges. All great, healthy choices, but alas, they didn’t fill the critter up. So he goes on a binge, downing “one piece of chocolate cake, one ice-cream cone, one pickle, one slice of Swiss cheese, one slice of salami, one lollipop, one piece of cherry pie, one sausage, one cupcake, and one slice of watermelon.”

Nevertheless, this spring, more than 17,500 U.S. pediatricians will start distributing free copies of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, along with growth charts and information for parents that encourages them to chat with their kids’ doctors about the importance of eating well. (These same pediatricians might want to rethink the wisdom of handing out those ubiquitous Dum Dum pops after an office visit — that kind of contradicts the message.)

Even former President Bill Clinton’s got something to say on the matter. “We are starting a dialogue between parents and doctors that will go beyond the waiting room and into the home, enabling 21 million children to make more nutritious choices and lead healthier lives,” Clinton said in a statement. A former connoisseur of fast food, Clinton blamed his 2004 quadruple bypass surgery on his unhealthy eating habits. That, in turn, led him to want to correct the problem for the next generation. “The bottom line is we’ve got too many kids too overweight,” he told CNN in 2005, “and they’re walking time bombs.”

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That year, his William J. Clinton Foundation teamed up with the American Heart Association to form the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, with a goal of halting the childhood obesity epidemic by 2010. Doesn’t look like they’ve succeeded, as various reports continue to chronicle the ever-increasing waistlines of America’s children.

The Alliance offers the following tips for using The Hungry Caterpillar to launch a dialogue about healthy eating between parents and children:

•  Teach your child that apples, pears, plums, strawberries, and oranges are all fruits. Ask them if they can name other fruits.

•  Talk to them about how fruits are good for your body.

•  Talk about how when the caterpillar overeats, he gets a stomachache, so it’s important to stop eating when you feel full.

All good suggestions. Ideally, parents will point out to their children that chowing five sugary desserts at one sitting (count ’em: chocolate cake, ice cream, a lollipop, cherry pie and a cupcake) is not a good use of calories. But these are little kids after all — preschoolers, in fact, are the target market — and in my personal experience, what a child that age takes away from reading this book is, Wow, look how much junk food that lucky caterpillar gorged himself on!

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Presumably, however, it’s not money wasted. After all, maybe the message will sink in with some little kids — and the others will leave the doctor’s office with a free book. Encouraging kids to read may not exactly cure childhood obesity — although one study of tween-age girls found that reading, depending on the material, did in fact spur weight loss — but at least those kids who don’t already own this must-have board book will get to expand their home library.