With all the talk of Michael Pollan and Jamie Oliver lately, it’s easy to ignore the person who right now is, given her current address, the most influential voice on food policy in the country. Naturally, I’m talking about First Lady Michelle Obama. While she’s been exercising what diplomats would call her “soft power” for a while, i.e. planting a garden, making speeches on healthy eating, and so on, indications are that she’s quietly developing a set of policy recommendations to reform the food system. Obama Foodorama has been tirelessly reporting on these maneuvers, which have remained under the radar — even to the point of Mrs. Obama holding “secret meetings” between her policy team and USDA officials.
The speeches continue — she gave another one just the other day at the Department of Health and Human Services. But according to Ob Fo, the First Lady’s policy team — White House Food Initiatives Coordinator Sam Kass and Policy Director Jocelyn Frye — are currently fleshing out a new set of national food and health initiatives. And while nothing is imminent, it now appears that the White House is embracing the “addiction model” of food consumption as portrayed in former FDA chief David Kessler’s new book The End of Overeating:
[T]he book has become something of a bible for Mrs. Obama and her food policy team, and required reading in the White House. Dr. Kessler holds that our bodies and minds are completely changed when we consume sugar, fat, and salt and he maintains that there needs to be all kinds of behavioral changes focused on countermanding this. So while creating better food infrastructures in schools, and promoting educational programs that include cooking and gardening, and promoting better access to healthy foods for the general population through edible gardens and farmers markets, etc., ect., is crucial — these are only part of the very complicated dynamic that gets people to permanently embrace healthier eating. Mrs. Obama and her food policy team are fully aware of this, and they’re busily working on ways to encompass Dr. Kessler’s ideas in upcoming policy initiatives.
I’m very curious to hear how Mrs. Obama translates Kessler’s treatise into policy. Because not only are sugar, fat, and salt addictive, they are accompanied by billions of dollars in marketing designed to get you hooked in the first place. The WaPo’s Ezra Klein summed it up nicely when he observed that:
People like crap food. It’s convenient. Brilliant, highly paid scientists have spent millions of dollars precisely calibrating it to the modern palette. Innovative, award-winning advertisers have spent billions of dollars making us want it.
Resisting that onslaught is impossible even for many of the most jaded, highly-educated, “cosmopolitan” Americans. And yet even chef and activist Jamie Oliver — who is witness to this phenomenon on a daily basis as he tries to change the food habits of a working class American city — can’t avoid indulging in a serious game of Blame the Parents:
“I’m a respectful person, and I’m going to try to do things in the nice way. But it’s almost as if parents here have stopped saying no. It’s as if the kids rule the roost.” We came upon a table of Krispy Kreme doughnuts. “They’re a treat, there to be loved,” he said. “But start having them every day, job done. It’s harsh to say, but these parents, when they’ve been to the doctor and keep feeding their kids inappropriate food, that is child abuse. Same as a cigarette burn or a bruise.”
The abuse, Mr. Oliver, is in fact perpetrated by beverage and snack company executives who develop the products, concoct the marketing campaigns and have the gall to declare things like “soda is a staple food.” Meanwhile, a new study out of UCLA’s Center for Health Policy Research offers compelling, if not overwhelming, evidence that focusing like a laser on sugar in general and soda in particular may really offer the most bang for the buck:
[R]esearchers found that adults who drink a soda or more per day are 27 percent more likely to be overweight than those who do not drink sodas, regardless of income or ethnicity.
“The science is clear and conclusive: soda is fueling California’s $41 billion a year obesity epidemic,” says CCPHA Executive Director Dr. Harold Goldstein, an author of the research brief. “We drink soda like water. But unlike water, soda serves up a whopping 17 teaspoons of sugar in every 20-ounce serving.”
Research shows that over the last 30 years Americans consumed 278 more calories per day even as physical activity levels remained relatively unchanged. One of the biggest changes in diet during that period was the enormous increase in soda consumption, accounting for as much as 43 percent of all new calories. According to Goldstein, that research, combined with this new data on soda consumption, offers conclusive proof of the link between soda and obesity.
And while adult soda consumption is troubling, consumption trends among children paint an even more alarming picture for the future health of California. The study found that 41 percent of young children (2-11 years of age) are drinking at least one soda or sugar-sweetened beverage every day. Adolescents (12-17) represent the biggest consumers, with 62 percent (over 2 million youths) drinking one or more sodas every day — the equivalent of consuming 39 pounds of sugar each year in soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages.
According to the study, Americans consume 22g of added sugar daily — that’s up to four times the recommended daily amount of sugar. And that’s just the median amount, which means half of Americans are consuming even more than 22g of sugar a day. That. Is. A. Lot. Of. Sugar.
It sure looks like an addiction to me. Just as with tobacco, we must have government intervention to get anywhere in the obesity epidemic — and Michelle Obama has positioned herself to advocate for just that. Now we just have to wait and see if and how she survives the firestorm that will erupt the minute she does.