Can Michelle Obama End Obesity? 5 Key Steps

Pursuing the first lady's goal may seem pretty straightforward. But it's not.


But Kelly Brownell, director of Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, argues that what's really needed is an economic shift that makes nutritious foods relatively cheaper and processed junk food more expensive. At the moment, penny-pinching shoppers find they can make seven SpaghettiOs dinners for what it costs to buy a pound of fresh salmon or cherries. From 1985 to 2000, the inflation-adjusted price of soft drinks declined by nearly 24 percent, while the price of fresh fruits and vegetables rose by 39 percent, according to a recent analysis performed by Wallinga. He says farmers, who without government subsidies would lose money growing corn and wheat, need incentives like lower-interest loans to turn land into apple orchards, peach groves, and spinach farms.

[ Health Benefits of Home-Grown Produce] 3. Keep overweight folks from getting fatter. Weight loss efforts seldom work permanently—just ask the 90 percent of dieters who fail to keep it off. So researchers propose that the emphasis should be on keeping BMI stable. That may mean setting strict limits on kids' TV and computer time; the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than two hours a day in front of any screen. As for Mom and Dad, they may need to step off the dieting track. Leibel's research has found that when overweight individuals diet down to a healthy body weight, they burn off 15 to 20 percent fewer calories every day than people at the same weight who never struggled to lose. "The body senses weight loss," he says, "and perceives it as a threat to survival, driving up hunger and slowing metabolism." For this reason, he counsels overweight folks to reduce their risk of disease by losing a modest 10 percent of their body weight. Those with 100 or more pounds to lose, however, might be good candidates for weight loss surgeries, which, for unknown reasons, don't seem to depress metabolism and increase appetite the way dieting does.

[Weight-Loss Surgery to Treat Diabetes]

4. Teach people to overcome emotional or mindless eating. The more people focus on their body weight, the more likely they are to starve and binge, a vicious cycle that can lead to even more weight gain, says Geneen Roth, an eating disorder expert and author of Women Food and God. Some rely on food as an emotional soother; Roth says they need to delve down to the root of their distress—Do I open the pantry when I'm bored? Anxious? Sad?—and then sit with those emotions rather than eat to avoid them. The government, meantime, may soon advise paying better attention while eating to avoid overdoing it. A draft of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, to be published later this year, calls for Americans to "become mindful, or 'conscious,' eaters, that is, attentively choosing what and how much they eat."

[5 Ways to End Emotional Overeating]

5. Be responsive to science. Obesity experts still can't fully explain how the nation became so overweight so quickly. What role, if any, do "obesogenic" chemicals, like bisphenol A in hard plastics, play in setting our appetites early in life? Why do immigrants who come to our "fatter" nation tend to gain extra pounds while Americans who emigrate to "thinner" nations like Japan tend to lose? "We don't have all the answers yet," says Brownell. "But we do know we have to intervene on multiple levels" if there's any hope of solving the obesity crisis in a generation.

[3 Ways Parents Can Use Michelle Obama's Experience to Fight Child Obesity]