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I Used To Mock Michelle Obama’s Efforts On Childhood Obesity. Now I Miss Her Activism

obesity fight Michelle Obama

Former First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign of 10 years ago was easy to mock. In fact, dunking on the former first lady’s crusade against cafeteria junk food became a popular punch line among Republican presidential candidates in 2016.

Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky tagged Obama in a 2014 tweet standing outside a Dunkin’ Donuts in New Hampshire.

A year and a half later, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz reassured Iowa voters, “French fries are coming back to the cafeteria” once he was in the White House.

As a 12-year-old in middle school when the initiative was launched, I myself would roll my eyes at the first lady’s attempts to scrap cookies and soda from the cafeteria, scoffing at the issue as a joke. Fast-forward 10 years later, and it’s not so funny now.

Results of a new study out Friday revealed nearly half the nation’s children aged 5 through 11 qualified as either overweight or obese, with researchers highlighting a majority of the weight gain due to an increase in obesity. When the “Let’s Move” initiative by the Obama White House was launched, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported childhood obesity among boys and girls in a similar age group, between 6 and 11, was about 12 percent.

Much of the rise came within the first 12 months of the coronavirus pandemic, when classroom closings sent kids into a sedentary lifestyle relying more on processed foods at home. According to the study’s authors from the University of Southern California and the University of Michigan, obesity among children aged 5-11 jumped from just more than 36 percent to nearly 46 percent over the course of prolonged shutdowns.

While parents are not absolved of personal responsibility, a team of 19 European researchers who reviewed more than 400 studies from 2000 to January 2015 found simple school-based programs, when implemented properly, have shown to be among the most effective strategies to mitigate childhood obesity.

Effective interventions, they wrote, included teacher counseling and teacher role-modeling, availability of healthy cafeteria options, limitation of unhealthy alternatives, changes in recess practices, promotion of physical education and parental involvement “via assignments, meetings, informative material and encouraging them to improve the home environment.”

“Use of incentives for children, social marketing techniques, collaboration with local stakeholders were found to increase effectiveness,” they emphasized. “Programs that focused only on educational sessions and material for parents, without promoting relevant environmental and policy changes, were found to be less effective.”

Many of these strategies were the very interventions sought by Obama. Instead, the campaign saw limited success with childhood obesity rates continuing to rise into the next decade to catastrophic consequences.

Americans kicked off the 2020s with a global pandemic where obesity was among the most common determinants — if not the most common determinant — for severe or deadly complications from the culprit virus. Early data revealed obesity tripled a person’s risk of hospitalization, and indeed, 78 percent of those hospitalized with COVID-19 were overweight or obese.

The nation went into the pandemic unhealthy, with 42 percent of U.S. adults considered obese in 2018-2019. More than 70 percent of adults 20-years-old and older are overweight.

Childhood obesity is only expected to be worse, leaving the next generation even more vulnerable to future pandemics. In a December 2019 article published in the New England Journal of Medicine, a team of academics projected that nearly 60 percent of those aged between 2 and 19 in 2016 will be obese by the time they’re 35. That was also written a few months before the coronavirus pandemic, which has almost certainly accelerated the timeline of the authors’ prophecy.

Even absent a new pandemic to face future generations, rates of obesity’s inflation will bring ramifications for years to come. Childhood obesity has been linked to higher rates of anxiety and depression, compounding the already severe health risks that come with excess weight long-term such as heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer.

Maybe if the nation had united around Michelle Obama’s initiative, some of these crises could have been averted. Perhaps if the nation had taken action even sooner, the severity of the COVID crisis from the prior 18 months would have been less catastrophic.

While the public health focus remains fixated on COVID and vaccine bickering, the underlying epidemic of obesity is the true pandemic.