A diet book for six-year-olds with a cover that features a plump child holding a skinny frock in front of the mirror has been attacked by nutrition experts.
Maggie Goes on A Diet by Paul Kramer, is due for publication in the US in October but is already listed on many bookseller's websites. The book tells the story of 14-year-old Maggie who "is transformed from being extremely overweight and insecure to a normal-sized girl who becomes the school football star". "Through time, exercise and hard work, Maggie becomes more and more confident and develops a positive self-image," it adds.
The author, who is based in Hawaii, has previously published titles including Do Not Dread Wetting the Bed, and Louie the Lobster Mobster, in which a criminal crustacean gets his just desserts. The age range of Maggie's intended audience is six to 12, a prime time for the development of eating disorders. However there is also a problem of childhood obesity with three out of ten children in the UK overweight.
Critics said the right people to target in order to combat childhood obesity were parents, and books with titles such as Fit Kids and Underage and Overweight are aimed at parents. Susan Ringwood, chief executive of the eating disorders charity Beat, said: "We know concerns about weight, size and shape are beginning to affect children at ever younger ages. Six and seven-year-olds already believe that their size tells the world what sort of person they are, and that big equals fat equals unpopular.
"Diets by themselves don't directly cause eating disorders, but the combination with low self-esteem caused by body-image issues raises the risk significantly," she added. "Children should only be dieting with medical supervision and with their GP's involvement. They should be gaining weight steadily as they grow into adulthood, and need the full range of nutrients and adequate calories to develop healthily. Adolescence worries come soon enough, without introducing them to six-year-olds."
NHS Choices says the best way for children to lose weight is to ensure they eat regular meals, including breakfast, together with the family and without distractions. They should be given fruit juice, squash or water in place of fizzy drinks, and healthy snacks such as raisins or carrot sticks in place of crisps and sweets. From the age of five, they should be encouraged to do at least an hour of exercise strenuous enough to make them pant every day.
A British Nutrition Foundation spokesperson said: "It's important children develop a healthy attitude towards food early on and maintain a healthy body image throughout their teenage years."