by Marion Nestle
Apr 4 2010

Mrs. Obama’s anti-obesity campaign

Today is Easter Sunday and my monthly San Francisco Chronicle column appears today.  It deals with Michelle Obama’s campaign against childhood obesity.  Enjoy!

Kudos for first lady’s anti-obesity campaign

Nutrition and public policy expert Marion Nestle answers readers’ questions in this monthly column written exclusively for The Chronicle. E-mail your questions to, with “Marion Nestle” in the subject line.

Q: What do you think of Mrs. Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign against childhood obesity? It doesn’t say much about junk food or food marketing. Isn’t this a cop-out?

A: Skeptic that I usually am, I have nothing but applause for Michelle Obama’s decision to adopt childhood obesity as the first lady’s official cause. Lady Bird Johnson’s legacy is the flowers that bloom throughout the nation’s capital. Obama must want hers to be the flowering of better health for our nation’s children.

Yes, Obama is sensitive to political realities. She calls her campaign “Let’s Move” rather than “Let’s Eat Less Junk Food.” But its goals are crystal clear. Her campaign aims to improve food in schools and eliminate “food desert” areas without access to healthier foods.

The White House organic garden is an integral part of this effort. It is no accident that Will Allen, the charismatic head of Growing Power, the group that runs urban farms in Milwaukee and Chicago, spoke at the campaign news conference. Good food, he said, is about social justice. Every child should have access to good food.

This campaign reveals real leadership on a desperately important issue. Obama brings diverse groups to this table. She presses government agencies to take action. She exacts promises from Congress to make it easier for kids to eat low-cost meals in schools. She got her husband to create a task force to tackle ways to prevent childhood obesity.

In addition, she is asking professional and business groups to do more to help kids eat better. I’m particularly impressed by her speech to the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents the makers of processed foods and beverages.

With masterful tact, Obama nonetheless insisted that the association “entirely rethink the products that you’re offering, the information that you provide about these products, and how you market those products to our children.” We parents, she said, want assurance that food companies will stop “teaching kids that it’s good to have salty, sugary food and snacks every day.”

Yes, she avoids saying anything about soda taxes or other measures that might make it easier for kids and parents to make better food choices, but she is bringing childhood obesity to public attention in a fresh, new way.

Consider what her campaign is up against. Preventing obesity means eating less, often a lot less, of processed fast-food, snacks and sodas. This puts the makers of such foods in an impossible bind. Eating less is not good for business.

Short of going out of business, what can such companies do to help? They can reformulate their products to make them a little healthier. They can stop marketing their products directly to children. But this, too, is bad for business – unless it can be used for public relations.

Indeed, food and beverage companies are falling all over themselves – with much fanfare – to reformulate and to promise to restrict marketing that targets kids.

PepsiCo, the maker of soft drinks and Frito-Lay snacks, says it will stop pushing sales of full-sugar soft drinks to primary and secondary schools worldwide by 2012. The new policy is voluntary, encourages rather than mandates, and assures school districts in the United States and abroad that the company will not tell them what to supply.

It keeps vending machines in schools and allows for continued sales of branded sugary drinks such as Gatorade, juice drinks, and sweetened milk.

Kraft Foods says it will reduce the sodium in its foods by 10 percent, also by 2012. This sounds good, but has a long way to go. Kraft’s Macaroni & Cheese (the SpongeBob package) contains 580 mg sodium per serving and two servings per package. A 10 percent reduction takes 1,160 mg sodium down to 1,050 mg. Salt is 40 percent sodium, so this brings salt down to 2.6 grams – about half a day’s upper limit for adults.

Still, these are steps in the right direction. Are they meaningful? You decide.

In the meantime, the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit research group focused on the effect of money on public policy, says soda companies have increased by ten-fold the amount of money they spend on lobbying – no doubt to counter the threat of soda taxes.

What are we to make of these responses? They raise my favorite philosophical question: “Is a slightly better-for-you processed food necessarily a good choice?”

What would be better for preventing childhood obesity would be to make eating real foods the default. These, as defined by Oakland’s Prevention Institute, are relatively unprocessed foods that contain nothing artificial. And they are produced in ways that are good for farmworkers, farm animals and the environment, and are available and affordable to all.

Getting to that point requires policy as well as voluntary actions. Perhaps I’m reading too much into Obama’s campaign, but that’s how I interpret it. I’m supporting it. How about you?

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  • Nicely said.

  • Thanks, I’m an Aussie Dietitian (met you at DAA years ago) who is just about to run a program for school canteen staff, teachers and parents to give adults a Metabolic Jumpstart so they can make “eating real foods the default” at home, then transfer the benefit to schools canteens. We have so many obese canteen workers so my place is to start with them. Cheers, Matt

  • I’m so glad that the first lady is going after a more active America. While I write about health and wellness weekly I will always be a strong supporter of physical activity. Eating healthy is great and needed but if everyone got out and exercised a few times a week the obesity rate would decrease and people would get a true taste of what it feels to be truly healthy.

    If kids learn how to exercise now, they will teach their children and the chain of events will happen in a positive way. I really believe if all of the people who know what to do talk to others we could change the world. “One conversation at a time.”

  • Sue

    Exercise is pointless if you eat garbage.
    Matt, your idea sounds interesting. Hope you are also going to change the low-fat, high-carb thinking and get people eating adequate protein, less carb and more natural fats like animal fats.

  • What a fantastic campaign and movement towards awareness that the country desperately needs. Anything can be picked apart and over-analyzed (and quite frankly, should be!), however, that we have a first lady who is concerned with childhood obesity is absolutely wonderful.

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  • Michelle Obama is in a great place to make a difference. I support her completely. A very tough ‘row to hoe’ but worth every effort. I also agree with your statement re. the Jamie Oliver program that children need to be told what to eat, not asked. If parents don’t teach their children to eat, the food manufacturers and fast food restaurants will.

  • Sue, I disagree. Exercise plus a good diet is the ideal, but exercise is not “pointless” just because a person still eats some junk food.

    I’ve been watching Mrs. Obama’s campaign with interest. I think the issue needs someone with her pragmatism.

    I am a working mother. I have a PhD in biochemistry. I really, truly understand the importance of eating well and teaching my children to eat well, too. So does my husband. We both do our best. But we cannot afford a live in chef- dinners have to be made by one of us in the limited time we have between getting home from work/day care and bedtime. So we make use of some convenience foods, which are of course “processed”. We choose these carefully, but I wish we had better options.

    That is what I’d like to see the food companies do- make me some better options. If they do that, they’ll actually get MORE of my money, because I’ll pay the premium for a better product.

    And the same principle applies to campaigns for more sustainable farming practices. I will happily buy grass-fed beef, local produce, etc. I’d prefer it actually. But I don’t have time to drive to a special store to do it, and no amount of moralizing from someone is going to make that extra time appear in my weekends.

    If you want kids to eat better, start from the reality of their families’ lives. Most mothers work. Most families have limited time in the evening. Find solutions that fit within that reality.

  • Anthro

    I support Mrs. Obama 100%, as much for her political savvy as for the effort itself. She has started a conversation, one that is desperately needed.

    I can’t help but brag that I know Will Allen personally, and what a great man he is. I’m so glad that the FLOTUS invited him to Washington (so was he!) to tie the issue of social justice to food.

    As to exercise, it’s great, but people don’t tend to realize that they first need to eat less (a LOT less as Marion mentions) or the exercise will not result in meaningful weight loss. I have this conversation with people at my coop grocery a lot. People: organic chips, muffins, cookies, and such will make you just as fat as the regular kind. Organic sugar and flour have as many calories as the regular kind. Many juice drinks have nearly as many calories as soda, and so on.

  • Renee

    @Cloud –I am in exactly the same place you are, and although it would be great if I could cook from scratch every night, I don’t have the energy or the time. And I would also gladly pay more for healthier options (and I feel lucky to be able to do so) but they aren’t easy to find.

  • Go Michelle!! Now please tell your husband to stop appointing ex-Monsanto executives and GM-supporters to administration positions. Say NO to GMO!!!

  • Joy

    Ah, yes; the dilemma of feeding ourselves. No time. Busy days. Lots of people in this boat. Cloud, If you’re waiting for others to provide a solution (convenience meals made from whole food, absent chemicals and horrific amounts of sugar, salt and preservatives) your kids will be grown and you will have retired before Big Food comes to the rescue. If we are responsible for feeding ourselves we will know what we are eating, will be healthier and live longer, and will gain a huge knowledge base to last a lifetime. I like Matt’s thinking: make eating real food the default. Words to live, and eat, by.

    I’ve made it my mission to provide a way to tackle exactly this dilemma. You can’t be expected to alter your food regimen suddenly, but you can ease into it by taking small steps and building on them. Modify your habits, even a little bit can be an improvement. If you see the benefits, you’re likely to change a little more.

    Begin by eating fresh fruit and unsalted nuts every day. Have bowls of seasonal fresh fruit, cut up vegs and dips available whenever anyone wants it, to allay hunger before mealtimes and as snacks. These are also great additions to school and workplace lunches.

    Make it a group effort, involving family members in planning, shopping, cooking, eating. Foster close-knit family bonds by providing daily opportunity to interact in a new, yet ordinary, way. Teach your kids how to feed themselves well (and they in turn will teach others). And many hands make light work as everyone collectively moves towards the same goal: eating well.

    Make short shrift of shopping by going as a family; everyone with their own list, meet up at the check-out. Involve kids (all ages) in the process of meal preparation. If they help cook it, chances are good that they’ll eat it. Ask their suggestions for foods to cook. If you bring home take-out on occasion, you can supplement it with foods you keep on hand, combining the best of both worlds.

    These are just a few ideas. My blog details many more ways to feed ourselves, with focus on preparations that are easy, quick and satisfying. Try it. You just may be surprised.

  • @Joy, I’m not waiting for the food companies to do anything. I was saying what they could do that would be helpful and probably profitable.

    I think you read my comment and read what you expected, not what I actually wrote. You gave me a lot of tips for problems I don’t actually have. We already eat nuts and fruits as our snacks. We almost never eat take out. We do cook our dinners- but to make that possible, I sometimes use convenience foods, and I think there is scope there for food companies to make better convenience foods. For instance, the spinach and cheese-filled tortellini that is one of the few ways to get my toddler to eat a vegetable could almost certainly be made with less salt. I’m not about to start making tortellini from scratch, but I would pay a little extra for a better store bought tortellini.

  • While I do applaud Michelle Obama for this campaign, you are right in addressing the issues that a common family it be more convenient and time-saving to buy and prepare processed foods. Thus, she really does her work cut out for her.
    And I don’t she should just campaigned against childhood obesity–should just be for the welfare of every kid. Just because a kid is thin doesnt mean he/she’s healthy, and if the kid is a little fat, doesnt mean he/she’s unhealthy as I have read here . I think it should be a campaign against malnutrition.

  • Stephanie Goodwin

    Although I am excited that Michelle is promoting better nutrition and adequate physical activity, I have heard that she does not have the input from nutrition experts and/or professional nutrition experts such as the American Dietetic Association, American Society of Nutrition, etc. Is this true? Why is this?

    Thank you, Stephanie

  • Joy

    Cloud: I agree with enthusiasm that Big Food should decrease the amount of additives in food products. They’ve been upping the amounts over a long time, and have managed to convince people’s taste buds that food lacks flavor without the added sugar and salt, I think they do this because (as tobacco companies) they’ve learned which substances form addictions.

    They could easily capture people’s devotion with healthy foods but, sadly, they’ve chosen another route. Frustrated at not finding low sodium canned tuna fish in my local groceries, I have decided to give it up rather than try and choke down an adulterated version that tastes of salt rather than tuna. I’d much rather have sushi than spend time canning my own tuna.

  • I think it’s always better to eat less of processed food, and if the companies can make it better, then I’d welcome the change. I also believe that obesity is not just in the food that kids eat either. It has something to do with how we bring them up. I read from several articles of the net that depression can lead to obesity so I guess that means it’s important for us to raise our children’s self-esteem along with taking care of what we feed them with. As a matter of fact, we can even enlist the help of their grandparents for this just as this article by Maureen’s say so

  • auburndj

    okay im sorry if yall think im naive. this Michelle Obama act to fight against childhood obesity is outrageous. i am a current student right now and i say it is B.S. think of it this way; some of these kids here the only meal they eat all day is a meal at school. but now that she has reduced the AMOUNT OF FOOD they might as well not even eat. we kids are NOT getting fat because of school food. i want someone to please tell me of someone they KNOW that has become obese because of SCHOOL food. i dont know a single soul who has. we barely have any OBESE kids at my school. if they are it is not because of school food it is because of how they choose to eat at HOME. even so what is it to Michelle Obama that we become obese. it is our choice. if we decide that we want to become fat and lazy then so what, that is our choice. i myself am a 17 yr old male who weighs 150 pounds and most of that is in muscle. so what if i weigh 150 pounds im obese….no. i suffer of not having enough food because my metabolism is so high and i work out nonstop. we are supposed to have at least 2000 calories a DAY. do we get that no. we fall short of that. and school lunches are only 750 to 850 calories. that is not enough for us high schoolers who are active. also the food has no added sodium or sugar and is disgusting. of course the students are going to throw it away. they shouldnt have to have something to drink just to swallow there food. and while i have mentioned something about drinks. we need more then little carton of milk they say for us to drink at least 8 glasses of water a day but we cant really do that when they wont allow us to get more then a milk. if anyone has something they dont agree with or do agree with please let me know and email me at i want to get this out there that this obesity thing is B.S.