By MARSHA MERCER
Few things rattle the Obama haters more than first lady Michelle Obama’s efforts to reduce childhood obesity.
For some conservative pundits, any government effort to encourage Americans to eat less and move more is an attack on personal freedom. They fulminate on the nanny state, busybodies and the food police, as in, how dare they tell me to put down my salty-fatty-sugary treat and go for a walk?
And they especially resent the first lady’s “Let’s Move!” initiative.
Perhaps that’s because unlike most people in Washington, she actually gets things done.
Mrs. Obama announced last fall that the parent company of Olive Garden and Red Lobster has agreed to add healthier choices for children by this July and to reduce sodium and fat 10 percent in five years and 20 percent over 10 years. Darden Restaurants is the country’s largest full-service restaurant chain, serving 400 million meals a year.
She also persuaded retail giant Wal-Mart to reformulate thousands of packaged foods by 2015, reducing sodium 25 percent and added sugars 10 percent and by removing remaining trans fats. Wal-Mart also agreed to reduce the cost of fruits and vegetables.
If the planet’s biggest retailer demands packaged food with lower sodium and sugar, producers will comply and make changes across the board. We all could benefit.
Life is about to get a lot more annoying for the french-fries-are-my-friend crowd. More companies are charging penalties or higher insurance rates for employees who smoke and are overweight. About 40 percent of medium-sized and large companies reportedly plan to start charging penalties this year.
PepsiCo -- the company that brings us such health foods as Cheetos, Doritos, Fritos, Lay’s, Ruffles and Tostitos chips, as well as Pepsi and Mountain Dew – is charging employees who smoke or have weight-related health problems like hypertension or diabetes $50 a month.
Workers who agree to participate in programs to stop smoking or manage their conditions don’t have to fork over the pictures of Ulysses S. Grant.
Angry Teamsters at a bottling plant in upstate New York complained to the National Labor Relations Board, which is negotiating with the company on the workers’ behalf.
And there’s more bad news for those who want to be left alone with their Twinkies: It will be hard for anyone to miss the government’s new multimedia campaign against obesity.
Four documentaries aimed at turning the obesity epidemic around will air May 14 and 15 on HBO. “The Weight of the Nation” films are a collaboration of HBO and the Institute of Medicine in association with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health.
There’s also a companion book, a three-part HBO Family series, a dozen short films, a website, a presence on Twitter and Facebook and outreach to more than 40,000 community organizations.
A two-day Weight of the Nation public health conference opens Monday in Washington. Plus, the Advertising Council and Clear Channel Media and Entertainment have launched a three-month series of radio ads about childhood obesity on 850 radio stations.
Some argue that Americans already know what to do to lose weight. It’s certainly true that the federal government has been urging healthy eating and exercise for decades. And it’s also just possible that the obesity crisis has peaked. Obesity rates in children and adults appear to have leveled off after steadily rising for 20 years.
Still, about 36 percent of adults and 17 percent of children are obese, according to the CDC. Even if obesity rates stop climbing, we’ll suffer with associated health issues for decades. The rate of type 2 diabetes in children – the condition that used to be called adult-onset diabetes – has soared. The CDC estimates that obesity contributes to about 112,000 deaths annually.
Michelle Obama should be commended, not criticized, for planting a garden at the White House, making exercise cool, borrowing the presidential bully pulpit – and admitting that she, like millions of Americans, has a fondness for french fries.
“I don’t believe in absolute ‘no’s’ to anything, because that wouldn’t make life fun,” she told an 11-year-old reporter for Scholastic News.
But we don’t have to say yes all the time either.