Let’s Move Campaign targets child obesity

By Ivana Susic

According to the American Heart Association, a staggering one in three children in the United States is overweight or obese.  As the rate of health-related illnesses in youth rises, first lady Michelle Obama has launched an attack on these statistics.

In February, Obama initiated her Let’s Move campaign, aimed at controlling and significantly reducing the rate of childhood obesity within one generation. The multi-faceted campaign is split into four categories, as stated on the Let’s Move Web site: “healthy choices, healthier schools, physical activity and accessible and affordable healthy food.”

Each category outlines a series of goals and a set of responsibilities. For example, in the healthy choices section, a key topic is the role of parents in better food choices.

Joanne Larsen, a registered dietician and editor of the American Dietetic Association’s new online diet manual,  said the first lady’s ambitious campaign is calling much-needed attention to the issue of childhood obesity. The first step lies with the parents, Larsen said.

“What really carries forward with kids is what they are served at home,” she said.

There is a huge parental impact. As “grocery gatekeepers” of what children eat, Larsen said parents are responsible for establishing healthy eating habits. Being concerned about their children’s safety is more than telling them not to open the door to a stranger; it’s about monitoring their health as well.

The reason schools serve a lot of unhealthy food is because that is  what the majority of children choose to eat, as opposed to fresh fruits or vegetables, Larsen said.

“A lot of healthy foods end up in the garbage,” she said.

If parents expose their children to a large variety of food from a young age, it is likely children will pick healthier options.

“We as a society cannot blame schools for all the problems children have,” Larsen said.

By eating prepackaged food, we let someone else determine the  nutrients we are getting, she said.

Elisa Zied, a registered dietician and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, said that Obama’s campaign is just the beginning.

“We need [more] voices who people listen to, to get the positive messages out,” Zied said. “We’re trying to speak loudly and we need her to support us.”

Instead of pointing the finger at food companies, it is important to work with them to create more nutritious food.

We can prevent diseases the children are destined to get if we do something soon, Zied said.

“We need to turn the corner now,” she said.

Obama’s plan will likely mean higher food costs for schools because healthy foods tend to be more expensive, but the cost of obesity is much higher.  Diabetes and heart disease, disorders that are increasing among children as well as adults, cost Americans tens of billions of dollars a year.

“We need to consider upfront costs against long-term costs,” Zied said.

Mary Ann Hodorowicz, a registered dietician and certified diabetes educator, said  calorie reduction techniques in school foods should be federally mandated.

“Is it possible and doable to have lower fat and lower sugar foods in the public schools? Absolutely,” Hodorowicz said.  “It’s not only what they purchase … it’s also in the cooking methods.”

The preparation can make a big difference in caloric intake, she said. For example, crumbled ground beef can be rinsed to remove excess fat before being added to a food dish. This can also keep some of the cost down for schools; the leaner the beef, the more expensive it is.

Kids choose from the menu they are given,  so healthier options are the best way to promote healthier eating.

“If it’s not available, how in the world are kids going to eat healthier foods?” Hodrowicz said.

Obama’s approach may be a little aggressive and may need two generations instead of one to accomplish, Hodorowicz said.

Considering  the  way health care reform has stalled, the Let’s Move campaign may face some political barriers. It is not something we will be able to tackle alone, she said.

“It’s going to take colleagues to keep this ball moving forward … [and] it’s going to take a huge commitment from huge associations,” Hodorowicz added.

In tandem with the first lady’s Let’s Move campaign, President Barack Obama released a Healthy Food Financing Initiative for 2011 to invest $400 million to bring healthier and fresher food options to underserved communities.