Last month, two food-related stories dominated the press. First, the World Cancer Research Fund announced that no one should eat processed meat ever because of its incontrovertible link to colon cancer. Second, President Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron made sausage the centerpiece of their photo-op during the president's trip to the United Kingdom.
The World Cancer Research Fund's new report, the most comprehensive ever conducted on colon cancer, confirmed that both red and processed meats play a significant role in the development of colorectal cancer. The authors found that 45 percent of all colorectal cancer cases could be prevented if we ate less meat and more fruits and vegetables and made other lifestyle changes.
You can't begrudge heads of state a bit of choreographed symbolism (pour the Guinness now, please). But when obesity, heart disease, cancer and other food-related conditions are epidemics costing hundreds of billions of dollars and a great many lives, the president needs to lead, not follow. He should set an example. So far, it's been in the opposite direction.
First, it was a well-publicized motorcade to Ray's Hell Burger in Arlington, Va., with the Vice president. Then, a repeat performance -- same place, same menu -- with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. Five Guys burgers, meaty chili and similar junk food used as props of choice show a president who is out of touch with health.
Just as the previous administration ignored the pleas of the president's cancer panel to stop subsidizing unhealthy foods, the current one has similarly treated health and nutrition with indifference.
The First Lady's signature anti-obesity campaign -- Let's Move -- is no match for the administration's ongoing purchases of sausage, cheese, burgers and other fatty foods that are sent to schools everyday. And the U.S. Department of Agriculture continues to bow to the interests of meat lobbyists and heavily subsidize the production of meat and other unhealthful foods.
It's time for the administration to acknowledge the clear and convincing scientific evidence linking processed meat to increased cancer risk. And it's time for action to protect our children: The president and the USDA should work to get hot dogs, bacon, pepperoni pizza and other processed meat products out of school lunches.
The president should also reconsider photo-ops that promote unhealthy foods.
Certainly, no political leader wants to appear aloof, and beer, burgers and sausage lend a "regular guy" image. But I don't want a regular guy as president. My plumber, my accountant, the pharmacist are all regular guys. And none of them should be running the country, much less setting a dietary example. Most "regular guys" die of heart disease, and half will develop cancer.
The fact that the Obama-Cameron photo-op served food to British soldiers doesn't excuse the unhealthful choices. British Ministry of Defence recently reported that 57 percent of its troops are overweight or obese. Many American soldiers are in the same predicament.
There is no shortage of healthful choices, as Michelle Obama and Samantha Cameron demonstrated with an agile pair of salad tongs. The sooner our leaders break the pattern of catering to the worst of health problems, the better off we'll all be.
Neal D. Barnard, M.D., is a nutrition researcher and president of the nonprofit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.
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