Deconstructing ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar’: Excellent food choices, portion control needs work

Eric Carle’s famous book “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” has become a foot soldier (well, a many-footed soldier) in the war against child obesity.

The storybook character, beloved by parents and children since he emerged from an egg -- pop! -- on a Sunday morning in 1969 is not exactly the exemplar of good eating habits himself. But the American Academy of Pediatrics and a consortium of philanthropic groups has decided that parents can point to the omnivorous larva to convey a few important messages about healthy eating (while their wee ones poke their tiny fingers into the various fruits and food items devoured by the very hungry caterpillar).

Starting this month, more than 17,500 pediatricians’ offices are to receive free copies of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” packaged with CDC growth charts” href="” target="_blank">growth charts and a reading guide designed to help parents use the story to talk to their young children about healthy eating. The packages are an initiative of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation (the anti-obesity campaign established by the American Heart Assn. and former President Bill Clinton) and two literacy groups: the Pearson Foundation and We Give Books, a digital initiative of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar’s” publisher, Penguin Books.


For those whose children have long since built a cocoon around themselves -- or become beautiful butterflies -- here’s a recap of the very hungry caterpillar’s story: From the moment he pops out of his egg in the warm sun, he is propelled by his hunger to look for food. Between Monday and Friday, he eats his way through a great deal of fruit. But on Saturday, his hunger really gets the better of him, and he eats through a piece of chocolate cake, an ice cream cone, a pickle, a slice of Swiss cheese, some salami, a lollipop, a piece of cherry pie, one sausage, a cupcake, and a slice of watermelon. (Being a caterpillar and all, he burrows a tunnel through all these foods just big enough for a small finger to poke into.)

Following this excessive intake of saturated fat, sodium and high-fructose corn syrup, he is diagnosed with NIH GERD page” href="" target="_blank">gastroesophogeal reflux disease (GERD) and begins a regimen of proton pump inhibitors. (Just kidding -- that night, Eric Carle reports, “He had a stomachache!”)

This cautionary tale, it turns out, provides some important teaching moments. Children can be induced to notice all the terrific fruits the caterpillar consumes, and to suggest more (which they might come to think of as snacks). Parents can pointedly note the unhappy results of his weekend binge -- the stomachache -- and remind their child that a sensation of fullness is a good signal that it’s time to stop eating. Readers might observe that the consumption of “one nice green leaf” on Sunday made the very hungry caterpillar feel “much better.” And for the scientifically minded child, there’s even a lesson in cumulative effects: despite his Sunday of calorie restriction, the caterpillar enters the next stage of his life bearing the cumulative effects of his excessive consumption: “He was a big, fat caterpillar"--with a significant case of abdominal adipose deposition to show for it.

Author and illustrator Eric Carle says he’s thrilled that his creation has metamorphosed into a “spokescharacter” for an anti-obesity campaign. Quoted in an announcement for the campaign, he says, “I hope ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar’ will be a happy reminder for children to grow healthy and spread their strong wings, like the butterfly in my book.”