SATURDAY, Oct. 4, 2008 (HealthDay News) -- Could a novel with an embedded message about good health help overweight girls develop the motivation to lose a few pounds? New research suggests that it just might, but the results weren't dramatic.
Duke University researchers found that obese girls who read a book featuring a weight-management storyline were slightly more likely to control their weight than two comparison groups.
The research is the first "to show a relationship between reading and making positive, healthy lifestyle changes," said study author Alexandra C. Russell, a fourth-year medical student at Duke University School of Medicine.
The findings were expected to be presented Oct. 4 at the Obesity Society's annual meeting, in Phoenix.
According to federal statistics, 16 percent of American children ages 6 to 19 are either obese or overweight.
"Childhood obesity is becoming an epidemic problem in this country," Russell said. "We need to find ways to appeal to a large population in an effective way."
In the study, the researchers assigned 31 severely overweight girls in a weight-management program to read a book called Lake Rescue, part of a series called Beacon Street Girls. The girls were all aged 9 to 13.
The book deals with an overweight girl who worries about going on an outdoor school trip. She ends up making friends, improving her self-esteem and learning about appropriate levels of physical activity, Russell said.
"Kids really enjoyed the book, I think, because the message doesn't hit them over the head," Russell said. "Because there are so many female characters, I think every girl reading it has someone to identify with if they didn't identify with the overweight character. We got only positive feedback."
Another 33 girls in the weight-management program read another book that had no storyline about being overweight; instead it told the story of a girl who searches for a missing cat in Paris. A third group of 17 girls in the weight-management program wasn't assigned to read any books, Russell said.
The researchers then compared the body mass indexes of girls in the three groups up to six months later. On average, the girls who read Lake Rescue gained better control of their weight, moving from the 98th to the 97th percentile in a range of weights, Russell said.
"The book helped," she said. "It either helped them stay at the same weight while they were growing or even helped them lose their weight."
While the difference in percentiles was statistically significant, it's hard to know if it meant much to the girls from a health perspective, Russell said. "These girls need to be followed up to see if there's a difference over a long term, compared to just one to three months," she said.
Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale University School of Medicine Prevention Research Center, said embedding weight-management messages in a book is a "very promising idea," but more research is needed.
"Could a cottage industry sprout up in publishing for novels that are ostensibly about some diverting plot, but really about eating well, being active, or losing weight?" he asked. "It's too soon to tell. We don't know how strongly, consistently, or enduringly such books might contribute to weight loss and control, or other health benefits."
Learn more about childhood obesity from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.