Diet From Hell

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Doctors at Phoenix Children's Hospital compared her condition with that of a starving Third World child. Her skin was loose on her bones, with hardly any fat or muscle to make it taut. Nearly every tendon and bone was visible. Her heartbeat could be seen in her scrawny chest.

The outraged medical staff at PCH demanded that police bring in the other two children. As expected, doctors found Caleb and Michaela malnourished as well. The boy weighed just 31 pounds. His older sister was barely seven pounds heavier.

Blair and Kimu were arrested and charged with child abuse. They made bail but were forbidden to see their children, who were placed with a foster family.

Because of potentially incriminating statements the Parkers made to police on the night of their arrest, the trials were ordered held separately.

Blair Parker's trial was scheduled to start April 25, 2007, but was continued until September 12.

Kimu Parker's trial ended April 9: The jury took 95 minutes to convict her of three counts of child abuse. She faces a mandatory prison term of 30 to 51 years at her sentencing, scheduled for June 13.

And jury members hadn't even been told about Lily.

She was the Parkers' second daughter. She died at 3 after a series of seizures in 2001, three months before Zion was born.

In some ways, the Parkers ate far better than the average American family.

Their children didn't consume Lucky Charms for breakfast, a hot dog and fries for lunch and a meal from Pei Wei for dinner, with gobs of snacks between. The healthful cuisine may have put the family at less risk for diabetes, cholesterol problems or high blood pressure.

Whether out of concern for animals or a desire for optimum health, plenty of folks go against the nutritional norm by living vegetarian or vegan.

And it makes some sense, considering the increasingly strident warnings about obesity and how meat contributes to the risk of heart disease and strokes. News stories about the growing weight of Americans and their children are as common as those on climate change.

Recent statistics show as many as 66 percent of adults and 17 percent of children in America are overweight. President Bush recently called child obesity a "costly problem" and helped kick off a new commercial starring Shrek and his donkey sidekick, who goad kids to get off their butts and play outside. Former President Clinton last month parroted the frightening (though unproven) mantra of fat-fighters who say Americans run the risk of "raising the first generation of children to live shorter lives than their parents."

Considering the hype, it's understandable that the Parkers were so concerned about keeping their children thin. At Kimu Parker's trial, no evidence was raised that the parents withheld food with the intent of torturing their children. They didn't hit their kids, except for an occasional disciplinary spank. It was a loving home, by all accounts.

The Parkers were trying to give their children a long and healthy life.

From that point of view, Kimu Parker's minimum mandatory sentence of 30 years could be considered wildly excessive.

In a similar case five years ago in New York, a vegan couple with a malnourished baby was found guilty of child neglect. Joseph and Silva Swinton had been giving the girl homemade formula with wheatgrass and other plant matter. As in the Parkers' case, there was no evidence that the parents intended to hurt their child. The mother got six years and the father five — but the case was overturned on appeal in 2005 and the parents were freed.

Murderers in Arizona often don't do as much time as Kimu Parker is scheduled to serve. Christopher "Bo" Huerstel — who, in 1999, shot and killed three Pizza Hut employees in Tucson during a botched robbery — was sentenced last month to 25 years.

If she deserves her prison time, what about the parents who overfeed their kids? After all, according to the prevailing wisdom, "fat kills."

A spokeswoman for Arizona Child Protective Services couldn't cite a single case in which children were taken from their parents for over-nourishing their kids.

In Texas, a 13-year-old boy who weighed 400 pounds was recently removed from his home for intensive treatment, but no criminal charges have been filed against the parents, a Texas CPS spokesman says.

So, did the Parkers have the right idea, to some extent?

Strange as it may seem, adopting some — though obviously not all — of the Parkers' diet would probably improve the average American's health.

Eating some meat is good for you. Nutrition experts see eating meat, especially fish and lean white meat such as turkey, as a way of ingesting necessary protein, fat, iron, and zinc. Omega-3 fatty acids in fish reportedly enhance and maintain brain function.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.