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Ticket Replay: Michelle Obama takes heat for naming her girls in fight against obesity

December 27, 2010 |  1:10 pm


During the holiday season, as in years past, The Ticket is republishing some of our favorite items from the previous political year. This story was originally published on Feb. 9, 2010:

The cause is unassailable. One in three American kids, about 25 million, are obese or overweight.

Obesity-related diseases cost the healthcare system $150 billion a year. And the rate of obesity in kids tripled in the United States between 1980 and 1999, an epidemic blamed on lack of exercise, a poor diet that's heavy on fat and sugar and not enough fresh fruits and vegetables.

Now, First Lady Michelle Obama is making the issue her own, spearheading a campaign to inform parents about....

...choices and schools about their responsibilities, urging everyone to get up and move. Her goal: Eliminate childhood obesity within a generation. "We can't afford to wait," she says.

And everyone is applauding -- President Obama, who is pushing for reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act with a "historic"  $10-billion investment over 10 years to improve the quality of school meals; the Centers for Disease Control, which has launched its own campaign on the issue; as well as the Disney Corp., which is planning public service announcements about the need for kids to exercise.

In an era of partisan trench warfare, the first lady, who calls herself the mom-in-chief, could be the glue that unites a divisive Washington.

But in interviews about the campaign, the first lady has been tracing her interest in the issue to weight gains by daughters Sasha and Malia when they were younger. When a pediatrician in Chicago expressed concern over the girls' fluctuating weight, said their mother, "I had a wake-up call."

Now, some critics are questioning whether using her own daughters as examples is fair to them. "Was it hurtful to her girls?" asked one blogger who focuses on Mommy issues. Psychology Today even questioned the first lady for using the word "chubby" to describe her daughters.

While her heart is in the right place, Michelle may not have considered or been familiar with the delicate balance between preventing obesity and triggering eating disorders. She mentioned that she put her children on a diet after her pediatrician and their father felt they were getting “chubby.”

Words like “chubby” don’t cause eating disorders but they are often a trigger to disordered eating behavior. As an eating disorder professional, we would strongly caution parents from using labels or prerogative words to describe their child’s weight as this has lasting impacts on a child’s self esteem.

But the anecdote about her kids is more about her own education than theirs. After the pediatrician flagged the issue, Obama said she made modest changes -- making sure portion sizes weren't too large, switching to low-fat milk, replacing sugary drinks with bottled water, offering plenty of fruits and "colorful" vegetables, making sure they got out and exercised. "The next time we visited our pediatrician, he was amazed," she reported. "He looked over the girls' charts and said, 'What on earth are you doing?' "

That's kind of the report card she's hoping for for the nation. In her remarks today, she said:

That was a moment of truth for me. Today, it's time for a moment of truth for our country. ... Our kids didn't do this to themselves. Our kids don't decide what's served to them at school or whether there's time for gym class or recess. Our kids don't choose to make food products with tons of sugar and sodium in super-sized portions and then to have those products marketed to them everywhere they turn. And no matter how much they beg for pizza, fries and candy, ultimately, they are not, and should not, be the ones calling the shots at dinnertime.

-- Johanna Neuman

Photo: Annie Leibovitz

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