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Healthy start ... how should parents manage their children's weight?

Childhood obesity is at an all-time high. According to the latest figures available from the Australian Bureau of Statistics a quarter of children aged 5 – 17 years are overweight or obese, up 4 percentage points from 1995. So when a mother decides to do something about her daughter, deemed by a paediatrician to be 'clinically obese', shouldn't we be applauding her? After all that's one less statistic, albeit in the USA. Not if the mother is Dara-Lyn Weiss.

Weiss wrote a story about putting her 7-year-old daughter, Bea, on a strict Weight Watchers-style diet in the April edition of US Vogue. The article included details of Weiss's weight loss incentive scheme - 'many pretty dresses' - and, as proof of the diet's success, "before" and "after" pictures. The inevitable furore ensued.

Using rewards to motivate weight loss may be questionable but what really got readers riled was the author's willingness to publicly shame Bea into conforming to the diet. Among other punishments, Weiss admitted to chiding her daughter for failures to 'self-regulate' at children's parties.

"I often derided Bea for not refusing the inappropriate snack. And there have been many awkward moments at parties, when Bea has wanted to eat, say, both cookies and cake, and I've engaged in a heated public discussion about why she can't," Weiss wrote.

She even publicly lobbed Bea's small hot chocolate into the bin when a Starbucks barista failed to report its precise calorie count.

Public derision and the Vogue writer's own dysfunctional issues with food aside, experts say that parents should steer clear of putting children on diets.

"The worst thing a parent can do is have their child focus on weight loss as a goal," says Psychotherapist and Managing Director of BodyMatters Australasia, Lydia Jade Turner.

"Dieting appears to be causally linked to both obesity and eating disorders and dieting also increases risk of binge eating, cycles of weight regain and loss, reduced self-esteem, food and body preoccupation, weight stigma, and future weight gain. It teaches a child that their body cannot be trusted and increases shame, which is harmful to their physical and emotional development."

Turner advocates encouraging kids to find physical movement that is enjoyable for them, while teaching them to listen to their internal cues for hunger and satiety, distinguishing between physical, emotional, and sensory hunger.

"Every day they can go to bed feeling good about themselves for engaging in healthy behaviours, rather than feeling distressed that they are not yet a certain number on the scale," she says.

According to Dannielle Miller's new book, The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo (Random House), a Victorian study of kids aged 12 to 17 years showed 38 per cent of girls and 12 per cent of boys were intermediate to extreme dieters – that is, they were at risk of an eating disorder. And a Sydney study of children aged 11 to 15 reported that 16 per cent of the girls and 7 per cent of the boys had already used at least one potentially dangerous method of weight reduction, including starvation, vomiting and laxative abuse.

"Within two years, 95 per cent of people who go on weight-loss diets, including commercial diets, regain all the weight they lost, plus more," says Miller who co-founded Enlighten Education, offering programs helping teenage girls decode the mixed messages they receive and develop self-esteem.

Miller believes that any talk about weight around children needs to be handled with care.

"Focus on the health aspects such as nutritious choices and an active lifestyle rather than size; whether a child is overweight or too thin," she says.

"And most importantly, lead by example, it important that the parent not be a hyprocrite, they should be eating right too and not be on a computer all day," says Miller.

Internet uproar over children and dieting is not new. The recently released children's book Maggie Goes on a Diet about a teenager who loses weight and suddenly leaves her insecurities behind caused much ado and Walt Disney World in Florida recently had to 're-tool' a childhood obesity exhibit after critics deemed it insensitive.

Children are already dealing with increasingly unrealistic images of (Photoshopped) bodies and the thriving juggernaut of the diet industry feeding body image insecurities. Add to this a culture that equates fat with moral failure and you have the perfect conditions for creating an eating disorder, says Turner.

"It's important to explain that bodies come in different shapes and sizes and that food is not a moral issue.

"There is nothing inherently 'bad' or 'sinful' about eating chocolate cake, yet walking down our supermarket aisles we see labels that scream '99% guilt-free!' as if the word guilt and fat are somehow synonymous. They are not, and often it is negative feelings such as 'guilt' associated with food that drive people to binge eat or eat in a manner that is out of tune with their internal signals of hunger and satiety," warns Turner.

Who knows what will happen to little Bea, forced on to a diet, publicly humiliated and then written about in a fashion bible.

"Only time will tell whether my early intervention saved her from a life of preoccupation with her weight, or drove her to it," Weiss writes.

And, despite the backlash, Dara-Lynn Weiss was rewarded herself, with a book deal.