Diet From Hell

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On the other hand, the same nutritionists also recommend vegetarian diets for adults. The reason: Americans eat too many saturated fats and trans fats, which boost a bad form of cholesterol that clogs arteries. We eat too much sodium, which may raise blood pressure.

We eat too much, in general.

Obesity has become an epidemic in the eyes of some experts, and its link to diabetes is so strong that a distasteful new word has resulted: diabesity. One theory, supported by a study published last summer in the New England Journal of Medicine, suggests that being even a little overweight leads to an early demise.

You can look up your body mass index, a measure of body fat that has become a way to determine when extra pounds can be a health risk, on a Web site like this one: www.nhlbisupport.com/bmi. You rate normal if your BMI falls between 18.5 and 24.9. Overweight is 25 to 29.9, and obesity is anything over 30.

You can calculate how much you would have to weigh to make a BMI of 21, or even 19. It may seem thin, but you wouldn't be underweight, according to modern science. You may even live a lot longer. Experiments with animals show that near-starvation diets over a lifetime can lengthen lifespans by 30 percent or more.

The pressure to lose weight has never been greater. But don't start the fast just yet.

A lot of the hype over obesity is often just that. It's fodder for gossip rags and book deals and advertising time.

Plenty of questions about fat and health remain unanswered despite the mounds of research.

True, studies do show it's not good to be obese, or even overweight. But the research can be contradictory or interpreted loosely. As Paul Campos' 2004 book The Obesity Myth points out, connections between weighing too much and problems like cancer and heart disease aren't nearly as strong as many think.

The idea of low-calorie diets as a way to extend life in humans, meanwhile, remains controversial.

Any restricted diet could be dangerous for young children. Even veganism, healthful as it may be for adults, could be harmful to kids if not handled carefully. Nutritionists say that's especially true in the first few years of life, during growth spurts when extra proteins and fatty acids are needed for the brain.

The point is, concern about child obesity and nutrition is warranted — but there's no need to get extreme. Children who are malnourished face a far greater — and more immediate — health risk than overweight children.

Kimu Parker may not deserve decades behind bars for her misguided mothering skills. But when she and her husband became convinced that they were right about their children's feeding pattern, they blinded themselves to the simple truth that their kids were starving.

On a warm day in September six years ago, little Aaliyah "Lily" Parker was coming down with something. She was whiny. She felt hot, then cold. She didn't want to play with her older siblings.

Then she had a seizure. The toddler went silent and seemed frozen for a few moments.

Most parents, if they had not already called a doctor, certainly would have done so by that point.

But the Parkers didn't have much faith in doctors. They shunned vaccines. Blair Parker worked but didn't buy health insurance, which didn't matter because the kids didn't go for checkups. Lily had been born with the help of a midwife and had never seen a doctor.

The Parkers didn't even take the kids' temperatures; thermometers contain mercury, and mercury is dangerous.

The Parkers didn't call for help after Lily's first seizure. Or the second. Or the fifth.

The seizures seemed to escalate in strength. The Parkers tried massaging the little girl. The self-fashioned experts on herbal medicines gave her one-sixth of an adult dose of valerian and passion flower in an attempt to relax her muscles.

Lily vomited as they tried to feed her apple juice through her clenched teeth. The Parkers let her lie down in their bed, and they prayed.

Then came what Blair Parker would later call a grand mal seizure. Every muscle in her little body seemed to tighten.

Her breathing became "like a frog, raspy," a cop later recorded Blair as saying.

She stopped breathing about 10:30 p.m. The Parkers shut off every appliance in the apartment, hoping her breath would be audible in the silence. It wasn't.

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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.