Michelle Obama's Childhood Obesity Plan Too Much to Swallow?

In the end, there’s only so much the government can and should do about obesity. It’s up to families.

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By Mary Kate Cary, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

Here in Washington, D.C., the local Department of Health estimates that 40 percent of children are overweight or obese, which is the highest rate of childhood obesity in the United States. At Children’s National Medical Center, an organization I’m very involved with, the Obesity Institute sees the what doctors there call the “metabolic weight on every cell” that obesity causes: painful and deformed joints, Type II diabetes, fatty liver disease, hypertension, high cholesterol, sleep apnea and depression--to name only a few. One doctor told me that obesity affects every organ in a child’s body, including the brain. Here in Washington, childhood obesity is a health crisis.

So the first lady’s “Let’s Move” Action Plan announced on Tuesday was welcome news here. It’s widely known that the east side of town is one of the “food deserts” Mrs. Obama decried. According to a recent Rand study, the east side of DC has a multitude of neighborhoods without a single grocery store; it also has a higher rate of vacant, abandoned lots and a lower rate of parks and sports fields compared to the rest of the city. With high crime rates, there are no safe places for children to play outdoors, so, understandably, they stay in and watch TV or play video games. Some of the first lady’s task force’s recommendations make a lot of sense in solving some of these challenges: making sure schools don’t eliminate recess or phys ed class, as many here in D.C. have done; getting vending machines with junk food out of the schools; working to cut all the frozen, processed food from school cafeterias and bring in more salad bars and healthy choices (as Jamie Oliver is trying to do); and asking doctors to measure Body Mass Index at all pediatric annual exams, if even just to be able to start a conversation with parents and kids about what BMI means. 

But others seem like a tall order to me. Sure it’s fine to call for the elimination of “food deserts,” but until grocery chains think it’s a good investment and a safe environment for their employees, I don’t see how the government can force businesses to locate in specific neighborhoods. “Lowering the relative prices of healthier foods,” which the plan calls for, sure sounds like government price controls, and “limits on screen time” is a great idea, but exactly how is the government going to “limit” my children’s time on TV or the computer within my house? Most parents I know already limit that, not because the government is threatening to do it, but because if we don’t the homework will never get done. Anyway, some of these recommendations sound very Big Brother to me. In the end, there’s only so much the government can and should do about obesity. It’s up to families--parents, caregivers, and even the kids themselves--to decide it’s time to make some changes. 

Childhood obesity isn’t going to go away because of some tax or regulation by the government. It’s not like securities regulation or highway safety. Being overweight is too personal of a problem, fraught with judgments and awkwardness, for the government to be able to solve. “Yes, but using cigarettes and alcohol are personal choices, and the government’s regulated those,” you might say. But unlike smokers and alcoholics who can go cold turkey if a tax goes too high--you don’t have to pay the cigarette tax if you don’t smoke anymore--every one of us needs food to stay alive. That’s why childhood obesity is so much trickier and needs to be dealt with compassionately and non-judgmentally, in a positive and encouraging way. To be most effective in the long run, it will be solved by parents teaching young people life-long healthy habits and giving them the tools they need to make good choices. Isn’t that our job as parents?

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