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The Physicians Committee

Fighting for America’s Children

By Neal Barnard, M.D.
Dec. 13, 2010

President Obama has taken a step forward for children in signing the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act into law. The legislation is modest, limiting some vending machine options and adding a few more cents to what schools can pay for meals. But it is a start. The key now is to make this the first step in a powerful agenda to conquer childhood obesity.

The figures are staggering. One in three children is now overweight. One in five teens has an abnormal cholesterol level. As this generation reaches adulthood, the rates of obesity, diabetes, and hypertension will be unprecedented. Aside from the personal costs, the financial burden will be more than the nation can bear.

On Feb. 9, the first lady set a goal of defeating childhood obesity within a generation. If she gets the support she needs to accomplish this goal, she will have accomplished more good for more people than any of her predecessors.

In the early 1960s, Lady Bird Johnson took on the issue of beautifying America. She spoke out against litter and unsightly billboards. Subsequent first ladies took on similar campaigns—boosting literacy and opposing drug abuse—that mainly aimed to keep them out of controversy. But in the Clinton Administration, everything changed. Mrs. Clinton took on health care reform. Suddenly, the first lady went beyond the softer issues of the past and grabbed a lightning rod for debate and division.

Today, with the health of our children at stake, the question is, will childhood obesity be treated as a feel-good issue, or will it be addressed as the threat it really is? This legislation suggests that the first lady may well be ready for action. And yet success will not be easy. Winning the obesity battle requires three things:

Recognizing its causes. Childhood obesity is not caused by a lack of exercise. Yes, many children are less active than in the past, but careful analyses show that these changes are not nearly enough to explain the rise in obesity. The problem is unhealthy food. As I showed in a recent analysis published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Americans eat a lot more today, compared with a century ago when the government started tracking our eating habits. Specifically, the average American eats 75 pounds more meat and 30 pounds more cheese each year, compared with a century ago. We’re eating more sugar and oils, too. Where are we putting it? All around our waistlines.

Confronting industry. The fast-food chains and other food industries that are fattening America’s children need to serve healthier choices, and it is not yet clear whether it will take a carrot or a stick to persuade them.

Changing policies. Currently, the federal government subsidizes fatty cheese, feed grains for livestock, and sugar, fueling the very problem the first lady hopes to conquer. When these subsidies come up for review as part of the Farm Bill in the next Congress, politically tough choices will have to be made.

To confront the threats to America’s children, the first lady will need not only vision and strong leadership; she will need the full support of the administration, Congress, and the American public.

Neal Barnard, M.D., is the president and founder of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

Neal Barnard, M.D.
Neal Barnard, M.D.

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