3 Ways Parents Can Use Michelle Obama’s Experience to Fight Child Obesity

Check children’s BMI, limit TV time, and cut out sugary drinks.

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At first glance, Michelle Obama's big "Let's Move" campaign to fight child obesity doesn't offer much to parents like me. I need help convincing my daughter's teacher that Smarties candies aren't the best motivational reward, and I wish my neighborhood had sidewalks so kids could walk to the pool and the park without risking being run over by a cellphone-distracted driver. Meanwhile, most of the first lady's big multiagency initiative is pure Washington wonk: Spending $10 billion over the next decade to make school lunches more healthful; $400 million in tax breaks for grocery stores that move into neighborhoods that have few sources of nutritious food; a Food and Drug Administration plan to improve food labeling. These are all good and necessary changes, but it will take years for them to have a measureable impact on children's lives. With one third of kids in the United States already overweight or obese, we can't afford to wait for solutions that work for typical American families.

But the first lady got my attention big time when she admitted she was guilty of feeding her own daughters junky fast food and carryout meals, to the point that her pediatrician said they risked getting fat. "It wasn't that long ago that I was a working mom, struggling to balance meetings and deadlines with soccer and ballet," Obama said at Tuesday's White House briefing. "And there were some nights when everyone was tired and hungry, and we just went to the drive-through because it was quick and cheap or went with one of the less-healthy microwave options because it was easy. And one day, my pediatrician pulled me aside and told me, 'You might want to think about doing things a little bit differently.' "

I'm still struggling to get my mind around the idea of Sasha and Malia getting pudgy. So, apparently, was Michelle. "I thought my kids were perfect," Obama said in a talk at a YMCA two weeks ago. But once she got the wake-up call from the pediatrician, she made small changes, including limiting TV time, cutting back on sugary drinks, and adding more fruit to breakfast and lunch. "Didn't make a big deal out of it," Obama said, "just made the change." That was enough to reverse the trend.

And the Obamas aren't living on broccoli alone. "This isn't about trying to turn the clock back to when we were kids or preparing five-course meals from scratch every night. No one has time for that," Obama said. "And it's not about being 100 percent perfect, 100 percent of the time. Lord knows I'm not. There's a place for cookies and ice cream, burgers and fries—that's part of the fun of childhood."

What's reassuring in this tale is not just that even a seemingly perfect family can let their eating get off track but that small tweaks in the family's daily routine really helped. So does the power of a role model. I'm looking forward to telling my daughter that Sasha and Malia drink water with their lunch and that she should, too. 

Here are three small changes that parents can do now to help reduce their children's risk of obesity: 

1. Know your children's body mass index. The American Academy of Pediatrics has joined Obama's campaign by encouraging pediatricians to monitor children's BMI. Ask your pediatrician for your child's BMI at the next visit, or use this online child BMI calculator to find out yourself. 

2. Cut back on sugary drinks. Even all-juice drinks are pretty much just sugar and water; a 6.75-ounce juice box packs 100 calories. Soft drink manufacturers, including PepsiCo and Coca-Cola, have agreed to include calorie counts on front of their beverage packaging by the end of 2012 as part of the Let's Move campaign. The easiest fix now: Make milk or water the drink choices for school and home, and save the sweet stuff for parties or other special occasions. 

3. Limit TV time. American kids log a mind-boggling 7½ hours a day of screen time, according to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey. Time spent with computers and TV is time not spent running, jumping, and playing outside. The first lady's campaign echoes the surgeon general's recommendation that TV time be limited to two hours a day and that all kids get one hour of daily exercise. That can be tough when many schools have eliminated recess and parents work long hours. But swapping out even one hour a week of TV or computer time in favor of a family walk or Frisbee game would be a good start. Kids love charts; here's a family activity log from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute to get them started. 

I still think Michelle Obama will always be a more perfect mom than me, but I'm willing to learn from her mistakes. Ice cream, yes! Juice boxes for lunch, no. What small changes for the better would work for your family?