In an exclusive conversation with Mediaplanet, the first lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, opens up about the challenges—and rewards—of pushing toward a healthier lifestyle.
What initially inspired you to develop the Let’s Move! initiative?
My interest in children’s health began years ago, with an eye-opening conversation I had with our family pediatrician. He asked me what my family was eating and, as I answered his question, I realized that we really needed to make some changes—and so we did. We started eating more fruits and vegetables, drinking more water, watching our portion sizes and cooking more meals at home. And before long, we all started feeling better, we had more energy, we were sleeping better at night, we were getting fewer colds—we were amazed at the difference!
As we made these changes and I learned more about nutrition, I found out that childhood obesity rates in the U.S. had tripled over the last three decades and about 1 in 3 kids is overweight or obese. So I realized that the Obamas weren’t the only family that had struggled with healthy eating, and when Barack became President,I decided that I wanted to bring the lessons I had learned as a mom to my work as First Lady. And that’s really how I approach this issue, as a mom who’s passionate about helping my girls and all our children grow up healthy.
How can we as a nation fight the childhood obesity epidemic?
Every single one of us has a role to play in addressing this challenge, and through Let’s Move! we’ve brought together business leaders, medical professionals, educators, faith leaders, athletes, elected officials, parents and so many others to take on this issue in their communities.
Today, five years after we launched Let’s Move!, 1.6 million kids are attending healthier daycare centers where fruits and vegetables have replaced cookies and juice; more than 30 million kids are eating healthier breakfasts and lunches at their schools; nearly nine million kids now attend Let’s Move! Active Schools where they get 60 minutes of physical activity a day. Restaurants are creating healthier kids’ menus. You can even get apples and skim milk in fast food kids’ meals! And food and beverage companies have cut 6.4 trillion calories from their products. Eighty million people now live in a Let’s Move! City, Town or County where kids can walk to school on new sidewalks, participate in a summer meal program or join a local athletic league.
But while we’ve made some real progress, we still have a long way to go, and I plan to keep pushing forward on this issue, as First Lady and beyond.
How would you advise communities combat childhood obesity?
The great news is that you don’t have to start from scratch. Check out the Let’s Move! map at LetsMove.gov to learn more about programs that are already making a difference in your community and to find tips on healthy eating and physical activity.
Everyone in our communities can play a role in making the healthy choice the easy choice for families. Local restaurants can put pictures of healthy meals on the menu instead of photos of less healthy options, and they can make water and a vegetable the default drink and side dish for kids’ meals. Faith and community leaders can start wellness councils in their congregations and organizations. Farmers can help schools plant gardens and learn more about fresh fruits and vegetables. Chefs can work with local schools to teach cooking and nutrition classes and get kids excited about creating healthy, delicious meals. Business leaders and elected officials can make all kinds of changes—in the products they sell and the policies they promote—to improve kids’ health.
There are so many opportunities to make a difference for our kids. We just need to be creative and committed to their health!
What advice can you share with parents who struggle to break their family’s bad habits?
Stick with it! I say this from personal experience. Like a lot of families with two working parents, before that fateful conversation with our pediatrician years ago, Barack and I didn’t always take the time to prepare healthy meals and we relied on take-out and our microwave more than we should have. And it wasn’t easy to make the transition to healthier eating.
The main thing we learned from our experience is that we really had to walk the walk ourselves. Our kids take their cues from us, and we couldn’t tell them to eat their veggies unless we ate them too. Having family meals together was a critical part of that process. In fact, research shows that when families cook at home, they consume more nutritious meals as compared to when they eat out or eat ready-made meals. And when families share meals together, kids actually perform better in school and get along better with their peers.
We also tried to make healthy food accessible for our girls. For example, we would have fresh fruits and veggies right on the counter or on an easily reachable shelf in the fridge so our girls had an easy snack to grab when they were hungry.