Let’s Move to End Childhood Obesity,First Lady Michelle Obama Urges

by Melissa Diane Smith

It’s time to take action to end the epidemic of childhood obesity and it’s easier than you may think, first lady Michelle Obama said this week as she launched her “Let’s Move” campaign. Preventing and reversing weight problems in children in this country is vital for the health of kids who may for the first time lead shorter lives than their parents. But it’s also critical for the health of our country, which has a staggering $147 billion a year in weight-related medical bills.

Mrs. Obama knows firsthand that weight issues with kids can easily be reversed with changes in diet. Several years ago, Mrs. Obama was busy juggling a career and being a mother, and ended up cutting corners with food by ordering takeout and eating out more often. Doing that led to unintended weight gain in her girls and their pediatrician told Mrs. Obama that she needed to think more about nutrition. The Obamas got the message and made changes, particularly by eating more fresh fruits and vegetables, and the extra pounds quickly fell away.

After Mrs. Obama became first lady last year, she planted a White House garden to provide home-grown organic produce for the first family’s meals, formal dinners, and a nearby soup kitchen. The idea of a national obesity campaign sprang in large part from working on that garden with the help of local elementary schoolchildren.

“The garden was an important first step – just sort of exploring the ideas around nutrition and children,” USA Today quoted Mrs. Obama as saying. “I was curious to find out whether kids connected with this issue if we talked about it in terms of fun and gardening.” And they did. Kids from cities who were raised on fried foods and other non-fresh foods “were fully engaged in the process of planting these vegetables and watching them grow and harvesting them and cleaning them and cooking them and eating them, and writing about how vegetables were their friends. So we thought we could be on to something here if we made this conversation a national conversation.”

She will be spreading the word to schools around the country, mayor’s organizations, and the nation’s governors, but she also will have the help of many other resources. There are commitments to the cause from the nation’s pediatricians, children’s TV networks and websites such as Nickelodeon, sports teams, business leaders, grocery store owners, and school lunch suppliers. Plus, numerous departments of the government, including the Departments of Agriculture, Health and Human Services, Interior, and Treasury, and the Office of Management and Budget, are slated to be involved. Key components of the plan are healthier school lunches and more community and school gardens. She has received commitments from several food service vendors to meet Institute of Medicine guidelines for slashing the amount of sugar, fat and salt, and doubling the amount of fresh produce in school meals within 10 years. And Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is encouraging schools to focus on community and school gardens both to increase education and to provide additional food supplies to school kitchens. The first lady also has plans for a Healthy Food Financing Initiative, which, if it all gets funded, would help offer tax credits and other incentives to get grocery stores to move into underserved areas and encourage convenience stories to carry more healthful food options such as fresh produce.

References:

Hall, Mimi, and Hellmich, Nanci. Michelle Obama aims to end child obesity in a generation. USA Today, Feb. 9, 2010 – view story.

Michelle Obama on obesity: Time for a wake-up call. Washington Post All We Can Eat Blog, Feb. 9, 2010 – view story.

Smith, Melissa Diane. First Lady Sends Powerful Message with New White House Garden. Against the Grain Nutrition News & Notes blog, March, 21, 2009 – view article.

Melissa’s Comments:

What a great thing to have the first lady of the United States telling people what I have been saying for ten years: that obesity is easily solvable! (She is focusing on obesity in kids but obesity in adults is just as beatable.)

“This isn’t like a disease where we’re still waiting for the cure to be discovered – we know the cure for this,” the Washington Post quoted Mrs. Obama as saying. “We have everything we need, right now, to help our kids lead healthy lives. Rarely in the history of this country have we encountered a problem of such magnitude and consequence that is so eminently solvable.”

This message will be further spread by kids’ TV networks, sports teams, and other organizations.

As I mentioned in a Special Report earlier this year, increasing awareness and educating and empowering people are vital to creating a grassroots movement that gradually builds and changes many things. When consumers begin to want and demand healthier food options, food companies and distributors follow by meeting that demand. “If we build it, they will come,” Michelle Obama has said.

For all the good in the “Let’s Move” anti-obesity campaign, one thing that is notably absent is a federal tax on sugary drinks. Soft drinks, as I mentioned in my last article, are key contributors to obesity and obesity-related diseases, and health advocates have long argued that taxing high-sugar beverages would dramatically cut their consumption and thereby stimulate significant weight loss. (Actually, a better idea would be to have the government stop subsidizing the growing of outrageous amounts of corn, which are used to make high-fructose corn syrup that is used in soft drinks and countless processed foods, and, in my opinion, ban the manufacture and sale of soft drinks altogether! If such a thing were to ever occur, that would be the single quickest way to stimulate weight loss and reduce insulin-related health problems in the masses.)

Unfortunately, the beverage industry is powerful and doesn’t want the public to connect the dots between soft drinks and weight and health problems. It spent millions last year to lobby against a tax on soda and has apparently succeeded in stamping down that idea. Now it is on a public relations campaign, unbelievably trying to position itself as a partner in the anti-obesity campaign! On the day that Michelle Obama launched her campaign, I received a press release from a major soft drink manufacturer that said it was joining the first lady and other leading beverage companies to help the cause by better labeling beverage containers, vending machines and fountain equipment. Be careful not to get confused by some so-called partners in the campaign like soda companies. To solve the obesity crisis, we don’t need better labels on soft drinks. We simply need to avoid soft drinks at all costs.

Two more points to keep in mind:

  1. The campaign will emphasize physical activity and changing what we eat, but changing what we eat is the more important of the two – a point I am not sure will be covered in the campaign. Many people believe they can eat junky foods or drink sugary drinks and exercise off the extra calories. But that’s simply not true. Diet is the key. (There are many myths about exercise and its benefits for weight loss. To learn more, read my story, “Think You Need to Exercise Harder to Lose Weight? Think Again.”)
  2. Adding more whole grains into school lunches is part of the plan, a part that can be detrimental in many ways. Yes, it’s true that whole grains are slightly better for blood sugar levels and slightly more filling than the refined white-flour products that are currently in school cafeterias, but they aren’t near as good for weight loss and weight control as vegetables. Plus, as I explained in Going Against the Grain, many kids and adults are gluten sensitive and don’t know it. When gluten-sensitive people start loading up on gluten-containing whole grains, they can develop serious health problems, including increased gastrointestinal distress and bloating, fatigue, autoimmune conditions, and nutrient deficiencies such as iron-deficiency anemia, and they usually do not know the reason why. Even when people don’t have gluten sensitivity, an excess of whole grains increases the likelihood of developing nutrient deficiencies (because of the antinutrients whole grains contain) and decreases the likelihood of losing weight (because whole grains are high in carbohydrates and calories). And if your children happen to have carbohydrate sensitivity or allergy-addictions to wheat or corn, which are more common than you might think (creating just-got-to-have-it cravings for those foods), all bets are off in terms of your kids controlling their intake of those foods and losing weight. The government still advocates a grain-heavy food pyramid, and powerful food companies that make grain-based foods are joining in the campaign. So I am concerned that the campaign may push whole grains more than fruits and vegetables, and this would be a terrible mistake, sabotaging the goals of ending childhood obesity in a generation (and likely creating brand new health problems).

I commend Michelle Obama for taking on this cause and using her pulpit as first lady to let people know that obesity is beatable. The campaign she has launched is a great step in the right direction. But to really get the anti-obesity movement going, do yourself and your kids a favor and move more against the grain. That is the real answer to overcoming obesity.

Copyright © 2010 Melissa Diane Smith

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