Since the introduction of her "Let's Move!" campaign in 2010, First Lady Michelle Obama has been the face of the federal government's efforts to reduce childhood obesity. On Wednesday, Mrs. Obama announced a new strategy “to leverage the power of marketing to promote healthy products and decrease the marketing of unhealthy products to kids.” The first step, according to the White House's press release, is to get healthier lunches and vending machine snacks into schools.
Ambitious and well meaning as it is, the First Lady's new plan, like many previous government anti-obesity measures, is unlikely to make American kids any slimmer or healthier, for at least three reasons.
The first is that lunches are typically atrocious, and account for a fairly small percentage of the food children eat.. Looking at the nutritional information for New York City school-lunch program, for example, it's easy to see how unhealthy the food we serve kids every day really is.
That being said, school lunches aren't to blame for childhood obesity, and neither are vending machines. A study published earlier this year in Nutrition Journal found that students only get 10% of their calories from food served in school and only 1% from vending machines. The majority of calories children consume come from restaurants and from grocery stores and convenience stores, at least 63% of which come from the latter.
Along with getting children to exercise, Mrs. Obama wants them to eat lots of fruits and vegetables. That's not a bad thing, of course, since both are nutritious. But as we discussed back in February and as much research will confirm, consuming more fruits and vegetables isn't the key to losing weight, or getting your kids to lose weight. Losing weight is more about eating less junk food, mainly easily digestible carbohydrates, and eating less overall. There is pretty solid evidence that confirms this point as well.
The final flaw in the First Lady's latest anti-obesity measure is the assumption that people just need more information about healthy eating in order to lose weight. Nobody involved in the obesity debate may want to admit it, but the simple truth is that Americans eat unhealthy food because it tastes good, even though they shop at the same stores that sell healthier options. In fact, as political scientist Eric Oliver points out in his book Fat Politics, researchers have found that the government would actually have to pay people to add more vegetables to their diets. So as long as people are unwilling to make better choices, bombarding them with marketing about healthy food isn't going to make the slightest dent in obesity rates.