THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Obama Health Initiative Should Start With The Right Example In The White House

Bad eating habits in the White House? You must be kidding! Aren't these the folks who are bringing us the Affordable Health Care for America Act, the health care reform bill that was recently passed in the House of Representatives that will cost us more than $1 trillion over the next decade?

The evidence of rampant unhealthful eating in the Obama administration has been piling up. First came the NBC special "Inside The Obama White House," in which I discovered that the West Wing runs on M&Ms. Sterling silver bowls and specially designed boxes of "White House M&Ms" are scattered all around the West Wing, and according to the film crew, staffers grab handfuls of the chocolate treats as they walk by, especially in the afternoons. The Obamas also passed out M&Ms for Halloween.

In my upcoming book and public television special, Change Your Brain, Change Your Body, I describe how brain-imaging studies have shown that many high-fat, high-sugar foods like M&Ms actually work on the morphine or heroin centers of our brain and can be totally addictive. The more you eat them, the more you want them, and the more weight you gain. These foods are contributing to America's obesity epidemic -- more than two-thirds of Americans are overweight and more than one-third are obese.

Being overweight increases the risk for depression, Alzheimer's disease, heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. Plus, researchers have found that over time as your weight goes up, the actual physical size of your brain goes down. After looking at more than 53,000 brain scans, I can tell you that when it comes to your brain, size matters.

All of these diseases put a financial strain on our health care system. Obesity costs the U.S. health care system up to $147 billion a year -- an additional $1,429 for each obese person per year. Lost productivity, health care costs, and workers compensation costs due to obesity, overweight, physical inactivity cost California businesses nearly $22 billion in 2000, according to a report from the California Department of Health Services.

It has also been reported that the President sometimes runs out for lunch to pick up burgers and fries for his inner circle. It is widely know that the artery-clogging saturated fat in burgers promotes heart disease, but it can also lead to short-term memory loss. Not only that, a fascinating new study has found that a certain fat found in foods like burgers can mess with the appetite hormones in your brain and trick them into telling your body to eat more than you should -- for up to three days.

During the show we also learn that four cans of Diet Coke were delivered to one of the President's chief economic advisors. This advisor apparently needed the energy boost as he was filmed sleeping during a morning meeting. Other staffers are seen bustling through the halls of the West Wing toting coffee cups.

There are many reasons why drinking diet sodas and coffee are bad for brain health. The caffeine in these beverages is addictive, especially if you are drinking four or more sodas a day. Caffeine constricts blood flow to the brain and dehydrates the brain, which leads to premature aging and makes it harder to think quickly. Personally, I would love it if the people running the country had great blood flow to the brain so they could think quickly in times of crisis.

Diet sodas are especially bad because artificial sweeteners are as much as 600 times sweeter than sugar and can activate the appetite centers of the brain, making you crave even more food. One study comparing rats that ate yogurt sweetened with sugar with rats that ate yogurt with artificial sweeteners found that the rats eating the artificial sweetener ate more than the other rats and gained more weight. Diet sodas are not a health food.

Do you remember the "beer summit" with Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Boston police Sgt. Joseph Crowley? Drinking alcohol is a terrible ingredient for any type of meaningful summit. SPECT brain scans (these are the scans we use at the Amen Clinics to help diagnose and treat our patients) clearly show that alcohol diminishes activity in the brain's prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for judgment, impulse control, and empathy. It also reduces activity in the cerebellum, which is involved in coordination and thought processing speed. Poorer judgment, greater impulsivity, a lack of empathy, and slowed thinking -- is this what we want in a political leader?

The youngsters in the White House aren't faring any better. The President's secretary liberally doles out chocolate bars to children visiting the White House. First daughters Sasha and Malia were reportedly spotted with Michelle Obama noshing on cheeseburgers, onion rings, fries, and milkshakes. There was also an Obama family outing to an ice cream shop in the Hamptoms over summer vacation. These foods are terrible for developing brains and bodies and are part of the reason why the incidence of obesity in our children has increased more than 800 percent since 1982, putting them at increased risk for type 2 diabetes, learning problems, and early death.

Why would the President of the United States allow his staffers and his own family to consume this kind of "anti-nutrition"? Although I love Obama's focus on exercise, and I applaud Michelle Obama for planting a vegetable garden at the White House, I wish the President and his administration could be better role models for nutrition.

Mr. President, I urge you to encourage your administration to ditch the coffee, sodas, burgers, and M&Ms. And don't ply children with foods that are chock full of saturated fats and sugar. Not only would it improve their cognitive performance, but it would set a great brain healthy example for the rest of us. If businesses and families around the nation followed your lead, it could significantly reduce the incidence of heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease and other serious conditions in the U.S. This would dramatically lower the financial burden on our health care system. Isn't that a far better and more affordable plan for health care reform?