First Lady Michelle Obama’s campaign against child obesity is too poorly constructed to work
Every First Lady adopts a cause during her years in the White House, presumably to keep her occupied while her husband is trying to fix the ills of the world and our country. The causes these women take up are important to society and largely apolitical. Nancy was anti-drugs, Barbara hand her hands full fighting illiteracy, Hillary had healthcare, Laura had George (kidding! Sort of) and reading, and Michelle has taken on childhood obesity. They’re all worthy causes and it’s nice to have someone taking the lead on them.
Let’s face it, as a nation, we’re fat. Very, very fat. So fat that the idea of charging people for 2 seats on a plane is actually in the national discussion. It’s good to see someone so prominent and with such a platform taking the reins on this issue and trying to make a difference. But there’s one problem with Michelle’s general strategy: it’s flawed.
The program, called “Let’s Move,” focuses heavily on awareness, education, and access—hallmarks and staples of any movement. In theory, it’s a great plan. In practice, not so much. After reading some of the program highlights and seeing it recapped on local and national newscasts, it struck me that Michelle’s plan won’t have much of an effect at all for three primary reasons: it’s inaccessible to large portions of the population, it’s too generalized, and the information driving the plan is faulty.
It’s Not Accessible
When you ask any normal family why they don’t cook “healthier” meal options more often, you’re likely to hear that it’s too time-consuming, too expensive, or they don’t know how . And while I’m loathe to accept those as viable excuses, the reality is that, by and large, for a lot of American families it’s true. With work, family, and general life obligations, cooking for a family of 3, 4, 5 –19 if your last name is Dugger–can take up a lot of your evening, especially if the tastes of your family vary as greatly as they do in mine.
More importantly, there’s validity to the argument that it’s too expensive. I’m lucky enough to live in Colorado, where health- and environmental consciousness are top of mind and the options for moderately-priced, whole, organic food are nearly unlimited. But it’s not that way in all parts of the country, especially in my native Midwest. Fact is, sometimes it *is* cheaper to feed your family a meal at a fast food restaurant than it is at home and the primary reason in my eyes is that the government has too heavily subsidized agribusinesses and mass food producers.
In the past–and still in a growing number of places around the country–local farmers were the lifeblood of the local economy. They made their living by feeding the local hamlets, towns, and cities. But subsidies for large agribusinesses like ADM and Conagra (and ostensibly for huge retailers like Walmart) have made it virtually impossible for the local farmers to compete. The result is that for much of the past generation, families have been unable to afford healthier, locally-grown whole foods and rely more heavily on cheaper, mass-produced and mass-processed foods for sustenance.
Mrs. Obama’s action plan seems to assume that by simply educating parents and families on how to choose better food options will suddenly make them more available to more people. In reality, perhaps a first step in the “Let’s Move” movement should be to shift some, if not all, of those federal subsidies back to the local growers who take the time to plant and cultivate whole, fresh, and frequently organic goods so that they can keep market prices affordable for the average (and probably unemployed) American family.
The plan lacks specificity
The key to any action plan is that it has, well, action items. These are for the most part very specific agenda items that must be accomplished in one order or another for the plan to succeed. And while Obama’s plan does include some great general suggestions–essentially, eat less, move more–it relies too much on macro ideas than micro ones.
Just like there isn’t a single job that’s suitable for everyone, nor is there a diet that works for all people (feel free to insert any other comparison you’d like), there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to making American kids un-fat. Yet, the plan proposes to use a one-size-fits all model for determining if a kid is too fat or not. Among the many recommendations put forth to solve our fat kid problem, there’s one that angers me to no end. BMI.
BMI–or Body Mass Index–is a comparison between a person’s weight (mass) and their height used to loosely determine a person’s “fatness” or “thinness.” Developed originally in the early-mid 1800s, BMI is an adequate tool for determining the relative status of large populations, meaning it’s ideal if you’re an anthropologist or sociologist. Unfortunately, they’re not the ones battling the obesity problem on the front lines on a daily basis.
The formula has been widely shunned as inappropriate for individual diagnosis, especially in a 1972 paper published by noted scientist Ancel Keys. Using BMI on an individual basis is dangerous. At 5’7 and roughly 179lbs, my BMI suggests that I am grossly overweight, bordering on obese. Yet, more individualized metrics like body fat percentage shows that I’m a pretty fit 15%. I have a thick frame and carry around a fair amount of lean muscle. But according to Obama’s tool of choice, I’m just part of a growing problem.
For the average American who may not be as well versed in health and fitness facts vs. fiction as you or me, this can lead to a dangerous combination of misinformation and anxiety. Tell a perfectly healthy, athletic 16 year-old girl that she’s borderline obese and you’re planting the seed for an eating disorder. Tell a 15 year-old inactive male that he’s perfectly fine even though he’s dangerously skinny-fat (no lean muscle, high body fat composition, but looks “skinny”), and you’re promoting the continuation of a lifestyle that very well could lead to heart disease or a number of other maladies down the road.
And even with all that, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the plan aims to educate physicians–particularly pediatricians–to begin regularly measuring a child’s body mass index and identify a weight problem early. If a child is getting heavy, the physician can write an official prescription for healthy, active living (italics mine). Anyone see a problem with this?
We already know that this obesity epidemic can really only be addressed and solved at the individual level, yet the plan focuses heavily on using BMI as a primary data source for identifying people who need help. Trying to address a micro problem at a macro level seems to me irresponsible at best.
The Intelligence Is Faulty
Remember back in the early 2000s how Colin Powell’s character was publicly assassinated for relying on faulty intelligence about WMD to determine whether or not we should invade Iraq? Well, political opinions notwithstanding, Mrs. Obama is setting herself up for a similar fate in the war on fat.
One of the centerpieces of “Let’s Move” is to make smarter, better choices when it comes to food. And for good reason. Most of the people I know who’ve achieved changes in their body composition and improved health (mine included), started with making wiser choices when it came to what and how much was on their plate. Obama’s plan is well-meaning, but poorly executed. Bad information leads to bad decisions, and the Let’s Move initiative is based heavily on not just bad, but terrible, information.
School lunches will be a critical focal point for “Let’s Move” over the course of the next decade. According to the White House, more than 30 million kids participate in the National School Lunch Program and “Let’s Move” is planning to invest heavily to improve the quality of the school lunch and breakfast programs, increase the number of kids participating, and ensure that schools have the resources they need to facilitate program changes. On the surface, this is a good thing. But Michelle’s choice of partners is cause for concern.
It’s really hard to get behind any initiative powered by the FDA and USDA. Asking these two agencies to solve our problems with food is akin to asking the oil companies to get us off oil and onto renewable energies.
With people like Mark Sisson, Loren Cordain, Barry Sears, and even Jaime Oliver doing some groundbreaking work in the area of diet and getting real results for people, I find it hard to comprehend why Michelle would rely so heavily on career bureaucrats to help push her agenda forward and not look to alternative sources of information for ideas.
While the aforementioned diet experts may have many disagreements on particular aspects of their plans, they generally agree on the idea that the government is way behind on the science of food and how it has played such a major role in putting us in the predicament we’re currently in. Keep in mind that until recently, the USDA and FDA are the same organizations that told us to consume between 6-11 servings per day of breads, cereals, and pastas. Even in the face of mounting evidence and study after study showing that consuming too many refined carbohydrates can lead to massive weight gain, it still took them roughly 30 years or so to make any adjustments to their valued food pyramid.
Sometimes, in order to achieve radical results, you have to make radical changes. And it’s curious to me why in such a desperate attempt to change the course of the health of our country, Obama and “Let’s Move” would continue to use the same faulty information as the basis for change.
If the First Lady and her movement really want to leave their mark on such a hot button issue, they’d likely be better served by revisiting and re-evaluating their plan and adjust it to match the reality of our times. Changing the course of eating ourselves to death means more than just making better choices, it also means having better choices. And having those choices can only come from having new, inventive ideas of how to accomplish the goal. Relying on giant food producers, generic body composition metrics, and antiquated food science isn’t moving the country toward our goal, it’s moving us backward. And I’m fairly confident that’s not what she had in mind when “Let’s Move” was created.