February 10 2010

Fighting Childhood Obesity: Look to Parents, Not Big Brother

Julie Gunlock

First Lady Michelle Obama appeared last evening on PBS Newshour with Jim Lehrer to discuss the official launch of her anti-obesity campaign (which I wrote about here).

Lehrer served up your typical softball questions (my personal favorite: "What about this word ‘obesity' . . . It's not a comforting word at all." Thanks, Jim, excellent analysis). But to be fair, I suppose no one's expecting hard-hitting journalism on the First Lady's crusade against fat. That said, it would have been nice to see Lehrer more fully flesh out the First Lady's policy proposal to solve this childhood health issue.

As for Ms. Obama, she started the interview off on a sour note - yet again bringing up her own daughters' weight issues. I love how the liberals jumped all over Sen. Scott Brown for discussing his daughters' "availability," but have largely remained silent on what some would consider the much bigger parenting no-no of discussing a child's weight on national television.

Nonetheless, Obama clearly is passionate about her new cause and she does actually provide some good advice to parents facing this issue - get involved in your children's food choices. Her guiding hand, she explains, was the critical element in successfully improving Sasha and Malia's weight. Discussing her pediatrician's reaction to her involvement, the First Lady tells Lehrer that (emphasis mine)

he was pretty floored by how quickly you could turn the tide on this issue with - by just removing juices from lunchboxes and cooking a little bit more, maybe one or two more meals, turning the TV off a little bit more, limiting desserts to the weekends. I mean these were really not major lifestyle overhauls. So when I came here, I thought, if it can be that simple, it's all about lack of information and lack of focus on the issue. So I wanted to use the first lady spotlight to shine the light on this issue for many families that are struggling with this issue.

So, why not a simple solution for the American public? Why the call for government intervention when it's clear that parental supervision is the key to solving this problem?

And it looks like the science might agree with a simpler solution. Just this month, Ohio State University released a major study on childhood obesity that found that children are likely to have a lower risk for obesity if they eat dinner with their family, get adequate sleep, and watch less television. The study, set to be published in the March issue of journal Pediatrics, is the first study to review the impact of all three activities on children in a national sample of preschoolers.

Unfortunately, the First Lady's solution is a bit more complicated. It now involves an executive order signed by the president, a presidential taskforce made up of four Cabinet-level secretaries as well as the director of the OMB and several senior White House policy staffers, and a report due to the president in 90 days with recommendations on how to solve the obesity issue.

No doubt, this taskforce will come up with some pretty predictable recommendations - more federal money provided to schools for healthy lunches and additional physical-education programs. There will certainly be recommendations to increase regulations on foods aimed at children and new rules designed to rid schools of evil sugary drinks and high-fat snack foods all provided by those terrible vending machines.

Whatever the recommendations of the task force, the First Lady's advice to parents to take a more active role in their children's lives generally and food choices specifically will undoubtedly be more effective . . . and a lot less expensive.

- Julie Gunlock is a senior fellow at the Independent Women's Forum.

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