At a recent summit on childhood obesity, the first lady announced a shift in her well-known Let’s Move campaign — away from food reform and toward an increased focus on exercise. Instead of “forcing [children] to eat their vegetables,” she told her audience, “it’s getting them to go out there and have fun.”

Yes, you heard that right. The first lady actually said that eating vegetables is a chore. And that playing is a preferable focus for her campaign because it’s easier.

In February 2010, when the first lady announced a campaign to “end childhood obesity within a generation,” I was immediately skeptical. I worried that “Let’s Move” signaled an over-emphasis on physical activity, a much safer political issue than eating habits, and one that Big Food gladly embraces.

But when I took a closer look, I was pleasantly surprised to see that three of the four issues areas initially identified by the campaign were food-related. (A fifth issue has since been added.) The goals or “pillars” of the campaign are: 1) improving access to healthy, affordable food; 2) providing healthy food in schools; 3) empowering parents and caregivers; 4) increasing physical activity; and 5) creating a healthy start for children.

It’s hard to argue with any of those worthy causes, and it’s important to have the first lady bring attention to issues such as food deserts, and to serve as a national spokesperson in a way we’ve not seen before. I have also given praise where praise was due, such as when the first lady recommended — as part of a checklist for daycare centers to follow — significant limits on screen time for children.

And while the White House insists that food is very much still on the agenda, it’s hard to ignore the potential for politics going into an election year. (When New York University professor Marion Nestle recently dared to question the first lady’s renewed emphasis on exercise, she got set straight by White House chef and Let’s Move advisor Sam Kass; that’s how touchy this subject is.)

Exercise is fun, but doesn’t match the science

Putting politics aside for a moment, let’s talk research, which can often get lost in the shuffle or, worse, distorted by corporate interests.

Obesity expert Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa, says the first lady’s focus on physical activity to help “end childhood obesity in a generation” is misguided. More importantly, he says, it’s not evidence-based.

He pointed me to many scientific studies showing that physical activity, while important for other reasons, has not been shown to be effective in preventing childhood obesity. (See here, here, here, and here.) On the contrary, data shows that an increase in food intake alone explains the rise in obesity in children.

Children’s diets have changed so drastically in the last few decades, with the increase in calories, for example, due to soda and fast food so large, that moderate increases in exercise are not likely to make a difference.

As Freedhoff explains, it’s a “testament to the simple fact that it’s far more difficult to burn calories than it is to consume them.”

To be clear, exercise does have many health benefits; it just shouldn’t be used to distract us from overconsumption and marketing of junk food. Also, lots of skinny kids suffer from diet-related health problems, including allergies.

So if science isn’t driving the exercise bandwagon, what is?

Playing it safe

After nearly two years, it’s clear that Let’s Move is steering away from anything that challenges the food industry. In fact, the campaign organizers appear eager to form corporate partnerships. For example, the first lady hailed Walmart’s so-called “healthy food initiative” as a new “nutrition charter.” Of course, Walmart hasn’t exactly kept its promises when it comes to the environment, so we have little reason to trust the company when it comes to nutrition.

Moreover, the first lady’s deafening silence over the past few months during extremely heated public battles over children’s diets gives us more proof than we ever needed that she is either unwilling or unable to take on the hard political issues.

While Mrs. Obama certainly showed leadership last year to help pass the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act to improve school food, she hasn’t followed through. The recent hostile takeover of the USDA’s school food regulations by Congress on behalf of the frozen food lobby was one such example.

From the beginning, Let’s Move has also been mostly MIA on the extremely contentious and intractable problem of junk food marketing to children.

In one exception, the first lady gave a strong speech in March 2010 to the Grocery Manufacturers Association (Big Food lobbyists) imploring food companies to clean up their act. At the time, she asked: “What does it mean when so many parents are finding that their best efforts are undermined by an avalanche of advertisements aimed at their kids?”

But her admonishments had little impact. Instead, the food industry has launched a no-holds-barred attack on an attempt by the federal government to place reasonable, science-based, voluntary restrictions on food marketing to children.

To make its case to the feds, kids’ cereal giant General Mills went so far as to argue that getting kids to eat more fruits and vegetables would hurt the nation’s economy because food costs “would increase by a staggering amount.”

The argument was based on a bogus economic study, which warned that demand for fruits and vegetables would skyrocket, resulting in almost $500 billion more spent on imported food and $30 billion less on domestically grown grain. As Donald Cohen, who
recently uncovered this absurd claim, noted:

Even if the voluntary guidelines were that effective and their study was accurate, it’s audacious marketing spin to turn an overwhelmingly positive victory for public health into a big government, job killing attack on freedom.

This one-two punch comes from the very industry players with whom Mrs. Obama claimed she could “find common ground.” And it has left many advocates feeling defeated.

So when, instead of speaking out on behalf of the millions of children who will continue to be served french fries and pizza in school and get bombarded daily with Happy Meal ads, the first lady announces (as she did this week) that Let’s Move has broken a record for jumping jacks, it’s disappointing to say the least.

Here’s what Freedhoff had to say to the first lady:

I‘d tell her that we should be striving to change the environment so as to make lower-calorie, less-processed food choices the default. Let’s Move may be politically palatable, but “Let’s Cook” would likely have a far greater impact on health.

Let’s Cook? Uh-oh, sounds like a job killer.


Michele Simon is a public health lawyer specializing in industry marketing and lobbying tactics. She is the author of Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back. “Sorry, Mrs. O, but jumping jacks aren’t enough” was first posted Dec. 15, 2011 on Grist.