Michelle Obama Speaks Out Against Childhood Obesity

In a keynote address Friday, the First Lady stressed family responsibility.

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 08: U.S. first lady Michelle Obama arrives to speak during the 'Building a Healthier Future Summit' March 8, 2013 at the Lisner Auditorium of George Washington University in Washington, DC. The first lady spoke on ensuring the health of the nation's youths and childhood obesity.
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First Lady Michelle Obama isn't afraid to do a little scolding.

During a keynote address Friday in Washington, D.C., Obama had a message for parents with questionable eating and exercise habits.

"We as parents are our children's first and best role models, and this is particularly true when it comes to their health," she said, pointing to research that kids with one obese parent are more than twice as likely to become obese as adults. "We can't lie around on the couch eating French fries and candy bars, and expect our kids to eat carrots and run around the block. But too often, that's exactly what we're doing."

[See Vogue's 'Diet Mom:' How I Enforced My Kid's Diet.]

Obama spoke as part of the Partnership for a Healthier America's Building a Healthier Future Summit, a three-day event focused on ways to tackle childhood obesity. She's the honorary chair of the nonprofit, which also works with Wal-Mart, the YMCA, and the U.S. Olympic Committee, to name a few. The PHA is working to reverse sobering statistics: One in three kids in the United States is obese, and another third is overweight. That's worrisome because heavier children are more likely to remain overweight as adults, spiking their odds of diabetes, heart disease, and other conditions. If current patterns don't change, about half of all Americans will be obese by 2030.

During an invigorating address, Obama charmed the audience with snappy one-liners and family anecdotes. As she flashed back to her time as a working mom in Chicago, she came across as both passionate and relatable. "While I have plenty of help and support today, I didn't always live in the White House," she said. "It wasn't that long ago that I was juggling a demanding job with two small children and a husband who traveled. Back then, something as simple as a grocery shopping trip required a finely-combed plan of attack." Each week, she showed up at the supermarket—budget and shopping list in hand—determined to get in and out in 30 minutes, max. "So if the fruit wasn't already packaged, you could forget about it," she said. "I did not have time for bagging and weighing and calculating costs in my head. I was all about grab and go, you hear me?"

[See Is Obesity Cultural?]

Indeed, increasing demands on parents certainly aren't helping the weight epidemic. Back in 1980, Obama pointed out, just 39 percent of married families had two working parents. That number has jumped to nearly 69 percent. And three decades ago, the average employee worked about 180 hours less per year than today's employees do. That's why many parents feel like each day is "a cross between a high-wire act and an obstacle course," Obama said. "There simply aren't enough hours in the day to get everything done. I know a little bit about what that's like."

Though there's no easy solution, one is to make sure clear information is available exactly when parents are deciding what to buy, cook, and order for their kids. Busy moms and dads don't have time for complex labels or vague messages about eating healthy and making better choices, Obama said. She praised the government's MyPlate Pinterest page, which offers more than 1,500 healthy recipes—all available with the click of an iPhone cursor. She also highlighted Wal-Mart's "Great for You" icon, which is stamped on healthy products.

It's up to restaurants to put photos of mouth-watering salads on restaurant menus, Obama said, rather than juicy burgers and fries. And healthy products ought to be shelved at eye level in the grocery store, not hidden close to the ground. "If you're bending over, you're not going to get it," Obama said, as the audience chuckled their agreement.

[See The Working Parent Dilemma: Less Time for Healthy Meals?]

She also urged media companies to think about product placement, such as what popular TV characters are eating and drinking. Research suggests that kids are significantly more likely to request food they see on their favorite programs. That's why it's important that, for example, Disney is cutting all advertisements for unhealthy foods from its children's marketing. Similarly, in one study, researchers gave kids a choice between a chocolate bar or some broccoli. Not surprisingly, 78 percent opted for the chocolate—until the researchers slapped an Elmo sticker on the broccoli. Then, a full half of kids wanted the green veggie instead. ("The power of Elmo!" Obama said.) She added that the study is proof that we can indeed get kids excited about healthy eating.