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Neal Barnard, M.D.

Neal Barnard, M.D.

Posted: January 3, 2011 08:16 AM

Late last year, after considerable division and debate, Congress took a baby step forward against childhood obesity. New legislation gives schools more money, so that that slightly-more-expensive veggie burger might be in reach for schools that have only been able to afford the meaty variety up till now. The legislation also clears some of the junk food out of vending machines.

But as we have seen time and again, conquering childhood obesity will require much more, including fundamental changes in federal policy. If we are going to change the current statistics--one in three children is overweight, one in five has an abnormal cholesterol level, and diabetes rates will soar to unprecedented levels--we have no choice.

The key person in the government's attack on the problem is first lady Michelle Obama, who has set a goal of defeating childhood obesity within a generation. For her to succeed, she will need considerable support, not just from the press, but from the entire federal government.

A look back in time will show what we don't want: 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--all of which mainly served to keep them out of controversy.

Everything changed when Hillary 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?

Winning the obesity battle starts with recognizing its causes. As I showed in a recent analysis published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 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. Meat, cheese, and junk food are fueling the childhood obesity epidemic.

Currently, the federal government subsidizes fatty cheese, feed grains for livestock, and sugar, fueling the very problem the first lady hopes to conquer. USDA programs actively support cheese marketing, as shown in the contracts with fast-food chains that PCRM obtained under the Freedom of Information Act and which were publicized in a recent front-page story in the New York Times. So the political question is, do we favor big profits for industries that are making kids sick, or do our priorities favor children themselves?

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.