Last month, Michelle Obama announced that she hopes to make a deep and lasting policy impact by spearheading an initiative to reduce childhood obesity. Knowing our first lady, she’ll move beyond kids and also make it her business and her legacy to get everybody, adults included, to slim down and shape up.
Is Michelle speaking to you? Probably so. As we all know, most African Americans need to lose weight and many need to lose a lot. A report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in January notes that U.S. obesity rates remain high, though they aren’t rising as much as in the past. And African-American adults and children have the worst problem. Thirty-seven percent of black men are obese; the rate for African-American women is nearly 50 percent. (And, as The Root’s new blogger, Leslie J. Ansley, notes, if you factor in overweight but not obese black women, that figure reaches a startling 80 percent.)
If you’ve tried to lose weight, as most of us have, you may be thinking, “What could Michelle Obama say or do to get me to lose weight? Send Bob Greene to live with me and be my personal chef? Get on the treadmill with me—or for me?”
If she’s smart, which she is, what Mrs. Obama won’t do is heap all the blame on you for the extra weight you’re carrying. And she also won’t place 100 percent of the responsibility for losing it squarely on your shoulders—beefy as they seem to have become. Anyone who’s overweight must, of course, take responsibility for doing what it takes to battle the bulge by pushing back from the table and getting up off the couch. However, our national obesity epidemic can’t be blamed solely on millions of Americans suddenly losing all self-discipline. And the solution has to entail more than scolding individuals, one by one, into fixing themselves.
In our culture, being fat is seen as weakness, a lack of self-control and a personal failure. But what about the social, corporate and environmental structures that have conspired to keep us that way, especially when it comes to children? Parents are working longer and harder, particularly as the recession drags on, making fast food the fallback dinner. And those meals are bigger than they used to be: A number of studies have shown that serving sizes at national restaurant chains have become two to five times larger than they were 30 years ago. While the healthiest food costs the most, fast and processed food is cheap, plentiful and marketed ad nauseum, especially to children. At the same time, the physical education classes we knew as kids have become a thing of the past. For grown folks, too, getting consistent exercise is often inconvenient and expensive, especially during the winter months, and for some it’s almost impossible given constraints around work, commuting, child-care, safety and availability.
So it’s not just a matter of telling individual people to put down the bucket or the remote. Taking control of the obesity crisis will mean changing the environment, social structures and laws that feed it. It will take the kind of collective response that has led to a drop in smoking rates. Since the mid-1960s, the U.S. smoking rate has been cut in half. But that didn’t happen by nagging, blaming and lecturing alone. Providing information about the dangers of tobacco use and support for quitting helped—but it was laws, lawsuits, changes in advertising, bans on public smoking and heavy taxation that led to the big drop in tobacco use. New Yorkers who still smoke have to shell out about $10 for a pack of cigarettes—and puff them while standing outside in the cold. No wonder New York has one of the lowest smoking rates in the country.
In order to fulfill her goal of driving down the obesity rates, especially in children, Mrs. Obama would do well by following some of the models of the anti-smoking movement. It’s not exactly the same—you gots to eat, but you don’t gots to smoke—but obesity, like smoking, is a public health issue and should be treated that way. The first lady must take a hard look and a tough stance against everything that’s making and keeping us fat. Here are a few modest suggestions to get her started:
1. Rally politicians and other leaders around health and fitness. Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York City, will be the first one onboard. He’s already crusaded against smoking, forced New York restaurants to ban trans fats, taken sugary drinks out of school vending machines, made restaurants post the calorie counts on their menus and run an advertising campaign warning about the fattening effect of soft drinks. (Note to Michelle: Your husband might be able to give you a hand with this.)
2. Mandate consistent physical education for school children. According to the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, only 28 percent of students in grades 9 through 12 participate in daily school physical education, down from 42 percent in 1991. Reinstituting gym classes across the country will be a great first step toward getting children used to lifelong healthy exercise habits.
3. Tax unhealthy choices. Start this experiment by taxing sodas, aka liquid sugar. In the fall, an article in the New England Journal of Medicine suggested that a beverage tax on soft drinks would lower consumption enough to lead to significant weight loss and reduced health risks for Americans. Evidence has shown that for every 10 percent rise in the price of soft drinks, consumption declines 8 to 10 percent. And an estimated tax of a penny an ounce on sugary beverages would raise $14.9 billion in its first year that could be spent on health care initiatives. Of course, a tax would be hard for soft drink companies to swallow, but it’s worth a try.
4. Subsidize healthy choices. Use some of that $14.9 billion raised by taxing soft drinks to make fruits and vegetables, health club memberships, parks with walking trails and exercise equipment, school and workplace weight loss support, nutrition and fitness workshops—and any other healthy choices more affordable. With the health care debate in full swing, now’s the time to slip in some creative nutrition and exercise reform.
5. Stop allowing companies that sell junk food to inundate children with advertising. The advocacy organization Campaign for a Commercial-free Childhood, estimates that 98 percent of all televised food ads seen by children are pushing foods high in sugar, fat or sodium. The group also says that more than 80 different media programs were used to promote food to children through brand licensing or toy giveaways—like the 1.2 billion fast-food kids meals sold with toys. This has got to stop.
These kinds of changes won’t be easy. Remember that tobacco companies went out ugly. So in the meantime, Michelle, please continue to serve as a fit and fabulous national role model for exercise and healthy eating and beat the drum even more loudly about the importance of sticking to a diet low in fat and sugar and high in fruits and vegetables, whole grains and fiber and getting some kind of heart-pounding exercise at least several times a week.
Linda Villarosa is a journalist specializing in health and medical issues. She is the author of Body & Soul: The Black Women’s Guide To Physical Health and Emotional Well-Being. She is working on a PBS documentary about HIV and the African-American community.