by Marion Nestle
Dec 5 2011

Let’s Move Campaign gives up on healthy diets for kids?

In what Obama Foodorama calls “a fundamental shift in the Let’s Move campaign” Michelle Obama announced in a speech last week that she will now focus on getting kids to be more active.

Apparently, she has given up on encouraging food companies to make healthier products and stop marketing junk foods to kids.

This shift is troubling.  Here’s why:

1.  The shift is based on faulty biology.

To lose weight, most people have to eat less whether or not they move more.   For example, it takes about three miles of walking to compensate for the calories in one 20-ounce soda.

Activity is important for health, but to lose or maintain weight, kids also need to eat less.  Sometimes they need to eat much less.  And discouraging them from drinking sugary sodas is a good first step in controlling body weight.

But eating and drinking less are very bad for business.  Food companies do all they can to oppose this advice.

2.  It undercuts healthy eating messages.

On the one hand, Mrs. Obama says that she disagrees with this assumption: “kids don’t like healthy food, so why should we bother trying to feed it to them.”

But her speech implies that kids won’t eat healthfully unless forced to:

I want to emphasize that last point — the importance of really promoting physical activity to our kids…This isn’t forcing them to eat their vegetables. (Laughter.) It’s getting them to go out there and have fun.

3.  It declares victory, prematurely.

Mrs. Obama says:

Major food manufacturers are cutting sugar, salt and fat from their products. Restaurants are revamping kids’ menus and loading them with healthier, fresher options. Companies like Walgreens, SuperValu, Walmart, Calhoun’s Grocery are committing to build new stores and to sell fresh food in underserved communities all across this country.

Congress passed historic legislation to provide more nutritious school meals to millions of American children. Our schools are growing gardens all over the place. Cities and towns are opening farmers markets. Congregations are holding summer nutrition programs for their kids. Parents are reading those food labels, and they’re rethinking the meals and the snacks that they serve their kids.

So while we still have a long way to go, we have seen so much good progress. We’ve begun to have an impact on how, and what, our kids are eating every single day.  And that is so important. It’s so important.

Really?  I’d say we’ve seen promises from food companies but remarkably little action.

Mrs. Obama’s speech fails to mention what I’m guessing is the real reason for the shift: “Move more” is not politically loaded.  “Eat less” is.

Everyone loves to promote physical activity.  Trying to get the food industry to budge on product formulations and marketing to kids is an uphill battle that confronts intense, highly paid lobbying.

You don’t believe this?  Consider recent examples of food industry opposition to anti-obesity efforts:

  • Soda companies successfully defeated efforts to impose taxes on soft drinks.
  • Food companies successfully defeated efforts by four federal agencies to set voluntary standards for marketing foods to children.
  • Food companies successfully lobbied Congress to pass a law forbidding the USDA from setting standards for school meals regarding potatoes, tomato sauce, and whole grains.  The result?  Pizza tomato sauce now counts as a vegetable serving.
  • McDonald’s and  Burger King evaded San Francisco’s new rules restricting toys with kids meals by selling the toys separately for ten cents each.

The political cost of fighting the food industry is surely the reason for the change in Mrs. Obama’s rhetoric.  Now, she agrees that kids won’t eat vegetables unless forced to.

But in March 2010 Mrs. Obama warned Grocery Manufacturers Association:

We need you…to 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….This isn’t about finding creative ways to market products as healthy.

The food industry understood those as fighting words.  It fought back with weapons at its disposal, one of which is to deflect attention from food by focusing on physical activity.   It now has White House endorsement of this deflection.

I’m all for promoting physical activity but the refocusing is a loss, not a win, in the fight against childhood obesity.

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  • Waiting for Mrs. Obama, the government, or the food industry to assist in leading a healthy lifestyle is futile.

    I recommend reading: A Manifesto for Thriving in a Mixed-up World

  • The best post yet.

    How does one go about starting a food movement to get Mario in charge of the USDA?

    Mr & Mrs Obama, I know you secretly read this post. The Farm Bill needs a real voice to defend the stomachs of America. There is no one better qualified to advise on the Bill or overall food policy. Get it done.

  • As a Canadian, and a ex-obese, I can say that the White house does not know what it is talking about. First, they need to understand what a healthy diet is: primary vegetables by volume, perhaps 25% of the calories vegetables, and 75% fish and animal based. A few starchy vegetables occasionally. No starches for the obese. Very little dairy. Fruit only in season.

    Secondly, there is no processed foods in a healthy diet. Without processing, there is no political will to change. Government food policy is redundant. Eat well. Live good, independent of the government’s direction.

    You cannot change the mind of those who follow the low fat religion, the people who will not read and understand science, especially over the din of marketing disinformation.


  • Children are obese not because of lack of exercise but because of the food they eat. The food that’s heavily advertised to them.

    Epic Fail on Mrs. Obama’s part.

  • D

    The writing was on the wall back in 2010 when they named it “Let’s Move.”

  • Upstater

    She probably had to make the shift – election year is approaching and it’s not the time to piss off anymore powerful people. So sad.

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  • I think you may be missing the point here. What’s the primary goal–getting kids to lose weight, or improving kids’ health? The former is a bad idea on many counts: We don’t know how to make people thinner in the long run; kids grow at different rates, so a “chunky” teen may well grow up to be a “normal”-sized adult; our culture is already pretty messed up when it comes to food and eating, and heavy weight loss messaging can trigger eating disorders in those who are susceptible; and, finally, thin does not equal healthy.

    If we’re really talking about health, and not the proxy of weight, then I think Mrs. Obama has the right idea. Everyone benefits from exercise. There’s no major down side to emphasizing more physical activity, and everyone benefits from it, thin or fat. It’s proven to improve health, whereas weight loss is a very mixed bag (there have been lots of studies on the so-called obesity paradox).

    The issues of metabolism and weight are very complex, and simplifying them to thinner = healthier is simply inaccurate. But the research IS clear on the benefits of exercise.

    And don’t we care about all kids’ health–not just the heavier ones?


    Harriet Brown

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  • Obama Legalizes Horse Slaughter for Human Consumption

    Author: madeline bernstein
    Published: November 28, 2011 at 2:52 pm


    Horse slaughter plants are legal again in the United States. Restrictions on horse meat processing for human consumption have been lifted.

    In a bipartisan effort, the House of Representatives and the United States Senate approved the Conference Committee report on spending bill H2112, which among other things, funds the United States Department of Agriculture. On November 18th, as the country was celebrating Thanksgiving, President Obama signed a law, allowing Americans to kill and eat horses.

    Read more:

  • Anthro


    So what? Horses are more deserving of compassion than cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, lambs?

    You make is sound as if the President single handedly proposed, lobbied for and twisted arms just so he could make sure that horses would be used for food. This seems a little disingenuous of you. As you say, this was a very small footnote in a much larger bill.

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  • Julie

    Hello No Soup for You,

    I feel like you are talking to people like me, so let me clarify our stand a bit. I like exercise, I support science, and I neither like nor dislike fat people; I like people, in any shape. The food industry is something I feel has lost sight of a major priority.. bringing enough healthy fresh good-tasting food to millions of people at a reasonable price. I don’t follow fashion when it comes to food, either. Like most health conscious people (including moms) I just want to promote affordable healthy eating, exercise, and an awareness of the health dangers of obesity. What people do with that access and information is up to them.

    I think the people you rail against mostly just want someone, be it government , consumer demand, or the farming industry itself, to make bigger efforts to help people WANT to eat nutritious food, and have that option available and affordable to them at the supermarket and local restaurant.

    I hope this helps clarify a little, I know a lot of folks have a sort of misguided notion that people like Dr. Nestle would like to outlaw brownies at a bake sale, and I think I can safely say that’s just so not true.

  • Joe

    …..and the winner of this round……Harriet Brown!

  • Good post! Michelle Obama has definitely given up and taken the easier road. If she doesn’t have enough clout to make substantial changes in the food industry, it makes me wonder who does??? Marketing of unhealthy foods to kids needs to stop–whether or not they exercise.


    An increasingly cozy alliance between companies that manufacture processed foods and companies that serve the meals is making students — a captive market — fat and sick while pulling in hundreds of millions of dollars in profits. At a time of fiscal austerity, these companies are seducing school administrators with promises to cut costs through privatization. Parents who want healthier meals, meanwhile, are outgunned.

    Each day, 32 million children in the United States get lunch at schools that participate in the National School Lunch Program, which uses agricultural surplus to feed children. About 21 million of these students eat free or reduced-price meals, a number that has surged since the recession. The program, which also provides breakfast, costs $13.3 billion a year.

    Sadly, it is being mismanaged and exploited. About a quarter of the school nutrition program has been privatized, much of it outsourced to food service management giants like Aramark, based in Philadelphia; Sodexo, based in France; and the Chartwells division of the Compass Group, based in Britain. They work in tandem with food manufacturers like the chicken producers Tyson and Pilgrim’s, all of which profit when good food is turned to bad.

    Here’s one way it works. The Agriculture Department pays about $1 billion a year for commodities like fresh apples and sweet potatoes, chickens and turkeys. Schools get the food free; some cook it on site, but more and more pay processors to turn these healthy ingredients into fried chicken nuggets, fruit pastries, pizza and the like. Some $445 million worth of commodities are sent for processing each year, a nearly 50 percent increase since 2006.

    The Agriculture Department doesn’t track spending to process the food, but school authorities do. The Michigan Department of Education, for example, gets free raw chicken worth $11.40 a case and sends it for processing into nuggets at $33.45 a case. The schools in San Bernardino, Calif., spend $14.75 to make French fries out of $5.95 worth of potatoes.

    The money is ill spent. The Center for Science in the Public Interest has warned that sending food to be processed often means lower nutritional value and noted that “many schools continue to exceed the standards for fat, saturated fat and sodium.” A 2008 study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that by the time many healthier commodities reach students, “they have about the same nutritional value as junk foods.”

    More …..

  • Anthro
    I do not respond to people who address me as green con and if you do it again I will ignore you.

    The horse slaughter is another specific campaign promise Obama broke in order to kiss the ass of his large funders, similar to Michele Obama’s shift in focus for the election. It is to alert people to the fact of his contempt for people’s advocacy groups. Obama signed pledges not to do it.

    Adding to the cruelty is not insignificant. Because one thing is bad does not mean more of the bad should be tolerated without comment.

    The United Republic is a group pushing a Constitutional Convention to amend the US constitution to get money out of politics. That is the only way electoral politics will be viable in this country.

    Big money owns this country and the regular democratic process no longer is available to the organized masses. Candidates say anything to get elected and once elected they do what big money tells them to do.

  • G. Silverman

    I think its important to note the descent in programming and process related to the evolution of social marketing campaigns such as Let’s Move. If we trace its roots back to the French plan, EPODE we find a national program that is locally based complete with municipal buy in, corporate buy in, and some real metrics…fast forward to Change4Life in the UK and we see less policy teeth or municipality meat on the bones of the social marketing campaign and a more recent focus on easy corporate wins…and the latest incarnation Let’s Move, although started with the best of intentions, seems to simply throw out a feeble collaborative bone for anyone interested to fetch and bury.

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  • Anthro


    I agree that Harriet makes a point, but she mischaracterizes Marion’s goal, which is more about PREVENTING obesity in the first place.

    As Ms Nestle has pointed out many times, while exercise is a valuable part of good health, it plays a much smaller part in weight management than food.

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  • ckc

    Just wanted to remind everyone about the Healthy Weight Commitment to the Partnership for a Healthier America — this is the agreement Mrs. Obama made with industry to reduce sugar, fat, and sodium — and we need to watch it closely. You can read more here:

  • Dukebdc

    I don’t see this as “giving up.” I see this as focusing on what is most realistic at this point. The truth is that adults determine what children eat.. Parents, teachers, school administrators, etc are responsible for choosing the foods. Marketing to children only works if the parents or other adults holding the purse strings give in when little Johnny whines for soda or candy or fast food. If parents regularly revert to convenience or fast food because “my kids won’t eat vegetables,” then all the inspirational speeches in Mrs. Obama’s arsenal about corporate responsibility to promote healthy food won’t make a dent in reality. She CAN run around with kids, show kids being active, and provide examples of fun activity that kids can pick up on their own. She CAN’T be in everyone’s kitchen every night throwing out the Hamburger Helper.

  • MargaretRC

    I agree with @Fredt. If kids were fed a proper diet with enough natural fat (not vegetable oil or trams fat) to meet their needs, we wouldn’t need programs to make them move. They would want to move because their bodies would have energy to burn. Too much sugar and starches can make kids (and adults) fat, not fat. But if you deprive them of fat, they have to get their energy from somewhere. So they load up on sugar and starch. Quit the campaign to reduce fat everywhere and we might get somewhere! But that’ll never happen because, as Fredt says, the anti fat juggernaut is a religion that everyone clings to despite the complete lack of scientific evidence.

  • JessicaM

    I think it’s wise to focus on exercise in the messaging that we direct at kids and their parents. Kids are very perceptive, and they understand that messages that focus on weight loss (or preventing weight gain) are really saying, “fat people are bad.” That does nothing but mess with their self-confidence and get them started on an unhealthy relationship with food. Messages that focus on exercise and movement are much more positive, because they tell kids “your body can do lots of fun stuff!” This increases self-confidence and will help kids make choices that make their bodies feel good.

    That’s not to say we shouldn’t be aggressively limiting the influence and reach of powerful food lobbies. But that should probably be separate from an awareness-raising campaign like Let’s Move, which should be about empowering kids to make good decisions and feel good in their bodies.

  • Why does fighting food lobbies have to equal eating disorders for kids? Cheerleading, pole vaulting, wrestling can foster disordered eating too, but nobody is trying to ban them. A healthy diet certainly does not equal an unhealthy obsession with limiting the diet.

    To keep a healthy figure–you need both. Everyone knows that. You have to eat healthfully AND exercise. Calories in, calories out. It’s not complicated. Yes, children should be more active. But abandoning food reform is not the answer. The U.S. (not just youth) needs less fast foods, soda, and sugar.

    Michelle Obama’s refocusing is an abandonment of half of the all-important equation as far as I’m concerned. The road of least resistance. . .

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  • Margeretrc

    @Kit10Phish, “Calories in, calories out. It’s not complicated. ” Actually, it is way more complicated than that. Gary Taubes has two books and some articles out explaining why it’s more complicated than that and others have written about that, too. What “calories in, calories out” misses is that the human body (or any animal or plant or other living creature) is not a closed system in thermal equilibrium. It has the capacity to regulate, with hormones, calories in and out so that the energy available (that’s key) is how much energy is used. Energy available depends very much on the hormonal environment and that, in turn, depends on the type of food taken in. An over abundance of sugars and starches creates a hormonal environment that locks up energy in fat stores and makes movement difficult because the energy is not available to the muscles. Movement is much easier when there is no excess glucose in the blood to dispose of, insulin levels drop, and fat (stored or consumed) become accessible. Exercise is wonderful for health for a lot of reasons, but as a way to lose weight or keep from gaining weight, not so much. Your body will fight to restore any energy consumed during exercise and if you don’t restore it, it will react by making it that much more difficult to move and expend energy it doesn’t think it has. Much better to simply limit sugar and starch in the diet. Dr. Robert Lustig works with obese kids (that’s his specialty) and Michelle Obama would be wise to consult him. He’d tell her that reducing or eliminating sugar, particularly fructose (other than as found in whole fruit), and maybe starches from kids’ diets is the only strategy that will work–long term. The rest will follow logically from that. That doesn’t solve the problem of dealing with powerful lobbies, but until the powers that be understand the science of what makes people, including kids, gain weight, all the rhetoric in the world isn’t going to do anything to make the problem go away.

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