Mar 3, 2010

Playing Politics With Childhood Obesity?

[Cartoon courtesy of John Cole @ MSNBC Political Cartoonists Index]

A personal fitness trainer’s (conservative) take on First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign: facts, praise, advice, sarcasm, and satire included.

First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign –– taking on the childhood obesity epidemic –– is an ambitious movement that was launched early February. The goal: “to solve the problem of childhood obesity within a generation.” Mrs. Obama was armed with a "task force" by her husband, President Barack Obama, via a Memorandum on Childhood Obesity, whose mission includes the following objectives: “ensuring access to healthy, affordable food; increasing physical activity in schools and communities; providing healthier food in schools; and empowering parents with information and tools to make good choices for themselves and their families.”

Sounds like a noble cause, one that happens to be related to my passion and expertise. Despite Mrs. Obama's media rounds — she even appeared on FOX News and in an interview with Mike Huckabee said this is not government intervention — critics have arrived on the playground, including Glenn Beck and others. Concerns range from government’s involvement in our diet to the cost of such a large undertaking as well as which special interest groups will climb into the "obesity backpack." Erupting outside the White House is an angry mob, aka the Tea Party, protesting. Is the government trying to takeover our children's bodies? Are they going to socialize our Cheerios?

What is disturbing is that SEIU has their hands in the “obesity cookie jar." Yeah, the powerful labor organization, which received the back room special deal (Cadillac Tax exemption until 2018) in the Senate's version of the Democrats’ health care bill. The union that is led by the die-hard progressive Andy Stern, the White House's most frequent visitor who was just appointed to the deficit commission.

SEIU launched their own major ad campaign “demanding reauthorization and funding increases" in the Child Nutrition Act. In a January press release, SEIU Executive Vice President Mitch Ackerman had this to say: "A more robust expansion of school lunch, breakfast, summer feeding, child care and WIC is critical to reducing hunger, ending childhood obesity, and providing fair wages and health care for front line food service workers."

In reality, it is much safer to pack your child’s lunch, yet many parents don't have that luxury. So, first and foremost, we need to clean up the school meals, especially the cooked ones. I am sure that the school food servers are nice enough, however, most are not "poster children" for fitness, and do any of them bring to the cafeteria credentials that will help with the childhood obesity problem? Ironically, foods best for health, wellness, and fitness, even when it comes to school meals, require little preparation — like fresh fruits and vegetables as well as whole grains. How difficult is it to cut up some fresh fruit, make a tossed green salad, prepare oatmeal, steam brown rice or veggies, bake a yam, or toast a whole wheat bagel?

While it is admirable to feed and provide nutrition for our children, it is quite another to add your self-serving, power hungry agenda to a decent and pure cause. This reminds me of what the food industry has done to our wholesome foods by adding sugar, salt, trans fats, and other harmful additives and preservatives, thus marketing and selling a product that tastes good, yet fails the health test.

Julie Gunlock of the National Review, who is skeptical of “federalizing fat,” noted that Mrs. Obama was “was murky on the details” of her Let’s Move campaign and that “federally funded child-nutrition programs, along with the WIC program, cost American taxpayers $19 billion in 2007.” Mrs. Obama has called for overhauling many federal laws and guidelines, including adding $10 billion over the next decade to “update” the Childhood Nutrition Act, which feeds 31 million children at school and would add funding to feed more children. Again, admirable, but all large campaigns come with a price tag and generate that "downer" question: how much will Let’s Move cost and who is going to pay?

In a recent article by Mark Bittman of the New York Times, soda may be considered the new "sin." Bittman wrote that the “Obama administration announced a plan to ban candy and sweetened beverages from schools” and that many are pushing for stronger measures to discourage consumption, “urging that soda be treated like tobacco” (i.e.: taxes, warning labels, and a massive public health marketing campaign). Interestingly a tax on soda was one option considered to help pay for health care reform, an idea that President Obama entertained last fall.

Soda and other sugary drinks are bad news for a variety of reasons and I do believe it is prudent to ban certain foods and beverages from our school campuses, while encouraging healthier foods and more water consumption. However, though I am no fan of the food industry, is it fair to single out soda when sugar is a staple in many man-made food products like cookies, pastries, ice cream, cereal, and even in chocolate milk, applesauce, peanut butter, crackers, bread, sauces, and condiments –– the list is endless? Just take a look at any packaged, canned, or bottled food item and you will find sugar in many forms (high fructose corn syrup for one), and unfortunately at the top of the ingredient list.

So, what’s next? Is the government going to brand every fattening and unhealthy food a "sin” and tax it to support more entitlement programs? We don't need "fat police," we need a "truth squad" –– one that will unveil the realities of consuming certain foods and liquids in excess, contributing to weight gain and health issues. For example are the “three evil whites”: sugar, salt, and white flour, as well as America's enormous appetite for the three "F's": fat, fried food, and fast food. Since Mrs. Obama has plans to push for manufacturers to make their labels more “family friendly," many of them should include a warning sticker: "In Excess this Product Can be Hazardous to Your Health and Fattening to Your Body." And instead of a tax on consumers, Mrs. Obama should enlist the food industry (one of the villains in this crisis), including McDonalds and all the rest, to pay for her ambitious and seemingly costly undertaking –– giving them a way to redeem themselves.

When Mrs. Obama, a woman who works out and appears to have a good sense about this issue, broadcast her Let's Move kick-off at the White House, she also announced the creation of a “new, independent foundation," Partnership for a Healthier America, and laid out her plan while noting, “We are going to need to make modest but critical investments in the short run, but we know that that they’re going to pay for themselves likely many times over in the long run.” Mrs. Obama concluded by articulating that "this problem can be solved” and that it “isn't like a disease where we're still waiting for the cure to be discovered, we know the cure for this.” Mrs. Obama is on target because we know that the key to reducing childhood obesity is to get our kids to eat better and exercise more –– something most health professionals and fitness experts have been heralding for decades.

There are so many health risks associated with obesity, like heart disease and stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, gallbladder disease and gallstones, osteoarthritis, gout, and breathing problems, such as sleep apnea and asthma. Is this the future we want for our children? Well, the future is here.

Childhood obesity is real and unfortunately on the rise. According to the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, "childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years." What is even more alarming are the health consequences: "Obese youth are more likely to have risk factors for cardiovascular disease, such as high cholesterol or high blood pressure." They are also at greater risk of developing Type-2 diabetes, bone and joint problems, and other health issues. Let’s not kid ourselves; other areas are affected when children are overweight or obese; energy levels, mood, and yes, self esteem. Sadly, "obese youth are more likely than youth of normal weight to become overweight or obese adults."

The good news is that we do have the cure (better yet, the prevention) to obesity; it lies in proper diet and exercise; however, the real task at hand is education, motivation, and discipline, of which the latter is much more difficult to cultivate and should never be forced by the government. We don’t need government intervention; we need education and incentives, not mandates and regulations. I just hope they don't mandate tofu on the "anti-obesity menu" and ban my monthly Snickers. If Let’s Move does involve higher taxes and takes away any of our "diet freedoms (and indulgences)," John Cole's cartoon, which I found hilarious, may not be that far-fetched.

Obesity is not partisan –– it strikes both Republicans and Democrats alike –– therefore, we should not play politics in our fight against it. In fact, it is not a political issue at all; it’s a cultural problem that we all can help eradicate, or at least lessen. Moms, dads, uncles, aunts, teachers and all the rest of us can educate ourselves about proper diet and begin an exercise regimen, and then we can lead by example and become a guide and motivator and move our children toward a healthier lifestyle. Our children will reap the rewards of better health and wellness and our country, as a whole, will become more fit –– something we can all agree is a good thing!

What started in the garden at the White House has now become a worthy crusade. Let's hope that the First Lady will ensure Let’s Move truly caters to the health and wellness of our children, and at the end of a decade, and along the way, manifests a concrete and huge difference.

Playing Politics With Childhood Obesity?
Author: Christine Lakatos — Published: Mar 02, 2010 at 6:22 pm
Author of MY DIVIA DIET Fitness Book Series