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Michelle Obama's formula for healthy children

The first lady is a perfect candidate to confront one of the leading contributors to the country's high cost of medical care.

February 12, 2010

First Lady Michelle Obama announced this week that she would be taking on the epidemic of childhood obesity in the United States. We aren't always great fans of the kind of milquetoast portfolios that are created to engage first ladies on behalf of the nation, but hopefully this fruits-and-vegetables brief will be different.

Fat, after all, is an issue close to everyone's heart -- not to mention their arteries and overall health. And who better than Obama to confront one of the leading contributors to the country's high cost of medical care? She is an athletic, real-woman-with-curves, comfortable with herself in a dress size that an average American might wear. She is a mother of two young girls who, like their peers, must navigate through a confusion of messages coming at them from the junk-food industry on the one hand and the undernourished fashion industry on the other. She is a vegetable gardener and authentic role model for good health.

The figures fueling the first lady's "Let's Move" campaign are horrifying: Childhood obesity has tripled since 1980; a third of U.S. children are overweight or obese. And a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study calculates that a third of the children born in 2000 eventually will develop diabetes -- a disease closely related to excess weight. Diabetes, along with high blood pressure, heart disease and other obesity-related illnesses, cost Americans $150 billion a year.

Addressing obesity isn't rocket science. It's usually caused by a diet high in fat, sugar and salt, and lack of exercise. Obama's campaign seeks improved calorie labeling on soft drinks and foods marketed to children, better nutrition and exercise in schools, and increased access to low-cost, healthy food in poor areas. The president's budget proposal includes $400 million to finance supermarkets, green grocers and farmers markets in underserved communities.

Obama took heat for recounting how, when she was a working mom, she relied on fast food and pizza to feed Sasha and Malia, who put on pounds as a result. They were growing "chubby," she said, until their doctor suggested rethinking their menus and increasing their exercise routines. Critics didn't like the word "chubby" and said that shining a national spotlight on the girls' bodies could create eating disorders.

But Obama's straight talk and balanced approach is part of what makes her the right crusader for this cause. She and her family didn't hide their problems behind euphemisms. They didn't resort to extreme diets. They altered their eating habits -- fruits and vegetables, smaller portions -- increased their exercise and shed the excess pounds. Hopefully Obama's example can help turn the country's couch potatoes into lovers of tomatoes -- and green beans, carrots, asparagus, brussels sprouts . . .

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