I grew up a fat kid. It was an unpleasant experience, to put it mildly. If there was one thing I could change about how I was raised, I'd go back in time, slap the cupcake out of my chubby little fingers and give my parents a primer on nutrition. In fact, I'd give my mom and dad a copy of Fat Head Kids: Stuff About Diet And Health I wish I Knew When I Was Your Age.
The brainchild of health writer and filmmaker Tom Naughton and his wife Chareva, Fat Head Kids teaches its readers about metabolism, nutrition and obesity from the vantage point of the captain of a starship called the Nautilus. This rather impressive starship "carries you through the universe as you explore new worlds, save friendly creatures from the forces of evil, and occasionally get into trouble with your parents." The Nautilus has very important crew members like Marty Metabolism, who performs essential functions that keep the ship running smoothly as it travels. The ship is your kid's body, and he or she is the captain, in case you weren't already following along.
The quality I like most about this book is that the Naughtons don't condescend to their young audience. To be sure, there are colorful graphics and helpful characters (like Mr. Spot and Dr. Fishbones, the science officer and medical officer of the Nautilus, respectively) who help make the subject of the book more comprehensible. But as a science writer, I say without hesitation that the coverage of nutrition and food chemistry in Fat Head Kids is more extensive than anything you'd read in a typical New York Times editorial about obesity--or even many undergraduate nutrition textbooks.
For example, the first chapter of the book lays waste to the idea that obesity is simply a matter of eating more calories than you burn. Citing two studies, the Naughtons point out that scientists have tested this calories in-calories out hypothesis by overfeeding people (and lab rats) and recording the results. These studies showed that eating an extra 1,000 calories a day caused some people to gain weight like crazy. Others in the study, however, gained almost no weight. How is that possible if your weight is just a matter how much you eat minus how much you exercise? Answer: it's not.
Chapter two picks up with an excellent discussion of how chemistry and genetics influence our weight. The Naughtons begin by explaining that the human body is a collection of biological applications which were written in a programming language called "chemistry." As the authors sum it up: "Everything about you - from the color of your eyes, to the sound of your voice, to the size of your belly - is the result of your body following instructions written into its chemical code." (p 19)
With this simple but powerful analogy as a foundation, the Naughtons go on to explain in clear terms how your metabolism works. Your metabolism, they point out, is one of these biological applications, and what it does with the food you eat was programmed by nature into your chemical code--your DNA. Every proceeding chapter is an extension of this fundamental fact about our bodies as applied to specific topics, like hunger, sleep, good nutrition and healthy body image.
According to physicists, time travel is still not possible, so I can't go back to my early years and correct my mistakes. But you parents out there can go buy your kids a copy of this book and teach them some important lessons about nutrition that will stay with them for life. In sum, Fat Head Kids is a well-written, scientifically-sound primer on diet and health. And as our country begins to embrace an evidence-based public health policy, I'm hopeful that this book will find a wide audience.