At a YMCA just outside Washington, D.C., first lady Michelle Obama let the public in on a secret — even the first family has been vulnerable to the epidemic of childhood obesity.
During an event on Thursday to kick off a new national campaign she is launching against childhood obesity, Mrs. Obama talked about the time she had to confront warning signs about her own daughters' weight.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
The First Lady addressed the public health challenge posed by the rise in childhood obesity on January 28, 2010.
The First Lady addressed the public health challenge posed by the rise in childhood obesity on January 28, 2010. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Acknowledging that she was the parent primarily responsible for the care and health of her daughters, she recalled being a working mother in Chicago, struggling to balance the load of work and family.
"I tell you, there were plenty of times you come home tired," the first lady said. "You don't want to hear the kids fuss, and popping something in the microwave or picking up a burger was just heaven."
"It was," she added, "a godsend."
It was the family's pediatrician who first waved the red flag. He was seeing subtle changes in the girls' body mass index she didn't see.
"I thought my kids were perfect," Mrs. Obama said. "They are and always will be." She hadn't realized that her daughters were in danger of becoming obese. She wasn't sure what to do, but she knew she had to do something she said.
Over the course of a few months, the Obama family started making what seemed like minor changes. "We did things like limit TV time," she said.
This is something that President Obama has often mentioned and encouraged other families to do, but the First Lady says it helped the girls become more active even though it kind of drove her crazy "because they were just running up and down the stairs annoying me."
They paid more attention to portion size, reduced the amount of sugary drinks the children were allowed to have, and put water bottles in the school lunches. Mrs. Obama said she "slipped grapes in at breakfast to make a more colorful palate, and threw in an apple at lunch. Didn't make a big deal out of it — just made the change."
It was really very minor stuff, she said, but it worked. Small changes can lead to be big results. Children, she says, are not destined to the fate of being obese.
The kickoff of the first lady's campaign against obesity coincided with the release of a new report by Surgeon General Regina Benjamin on obesity, which warns that the rate of obesity among adults has more than doubled since 1980. Among children, the obesity rate tripled in the same period.
At the same event, Benjamin noted that more than two-thirds of adults — and one out of three children — are overweight or obese. Benjamin also made it a personal issue, noting that there are many Americans like her who struggle with their weight.
In the coming weeks, Benjamin is expected to lay out details of a plan that will involve communities, businesses and government in tackling the epidemic of obesity. The first lady's primary focus will be on children.
Parents will need some help, Mrs. Obama said, in terms of receiving good nutritional information and making sure that children are given healthier options at school, where they get most of their meals. But parents will also have to make changes themselves, by making sure that children spend less time in front of the TV and more time being active.
The first lady also admitted that it's gotten a lot easier to live healthily since she moved to the White House.
After all, Mrs. Obama is, as Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sibelius said while introducing her, "the most famous of vegetable gardeners."