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For healthful eating, do as I say, not as I do?

(Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press)

There sure are lots of prominent people pushing to get kids to eat more healthfully these days. Jamie Oliver, Rachael Ray and, of course, First Lady Michelle Obama have recently mounted campaigns of various sizes to encourage young people to learn to make better food choices.

The problem with being a public figure and commenting on what other people should and shouldn't eat, though, is that your every statement is open to scrutiny, your own habits subject to challenge and your own body under the spotlight. You can't afford to be, say, chubby and go around talking about how other folks should lose weight.

I've been thinking about this a lot as I wrote this week's "Eat, Drink and Be Healthy" column about Stafford, Va. teenager Nina Gonzalez, a vegetarian who worked with her school district to get some vegetarian items added to the lunch offerings. She's a great example of someone who both talked the talk and walked the walk.

Just after I'd written that story, I read an interview with Michelle Obama in the May issue of Good Housekeeping. Mrs. Obama talked with GH editor-in-chief Rosemary Ellis about her signature campaign against childhood obesity, noting that it's good to "teach a kid that a carrot is important" but that knowledge is useless to a child who "lives in a neighborhood where he has to commute five miles or 10 miles to buy a carrot." She then answered another set of questions about how she would celebrate Mother's Day:

Michelle Obama: It's my day. I get to do what I want. I get to choose what we have for dinner, or if we go out...
Rosemary Ellis: So what do you choose?
MO: It could be fried chicken...fried chicken and french fries or greens or macaroni and cheese. But it could also be burgers and fries, or it could be...
RE: I see a pattern here: fries.
MO: Yes, I've go to get fries in there!

On the one hand, I give Mrs. Obama credit for her honesty, and I know that someone such as herself, who clearly maintains a healthful diet, can indulge in deep-fried, fat-filled foods on a special occasion.

But think of the message that sends about that carrot: She wants kids to learn to crave carrots, but her list of favorite foods doesn't include one. Instead, it's kind of a list of anti-carrots.

Am I the only one who thinks this matters? Register your opinion by voting in today's poll and commenting below!

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  May 18, 2010; 8:53 AM ET
Categories:  Family Health , Nutrition and Fitness , Obesity , School Nutrition , Teens , Vegetarianism  
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Total consistency would be counterproductive to the message. If people think it has to be all-or-nothing -- if eating healthy means never indulging again -- then most will decide it's either impossible or just not worth it.

Posted by: Janine1 | May 18, 2010 9:45 AM | Report abuse

Yes, public figures should be consistent; however, the context is Mother's Day--a holiday--when many, most people might indulge in a special treat. That might be the only day Mrs. O eats them--who knows? I think the focus is that children (and adults) should stop thinking that french fries are a vegetable and start expanding horizons to non-fried, fresh produce, which definitely will be healthier and may reduce the size of our waistlines.

Posted by: ellent124 | May 18, 2010 1:10 PM | Report abuse

Genetics plays a big role, here. I'm tired of people criticizing Michelle's weight and calling her a hypocrite for promoting childhood obesity prevention. I eat whatever I want and I've always been a thin as Olive Oyl. And I've known vegans who were somehow five times larger than myself. Some body types are just thicker than others. Sheesh.

Posted by: forgetthis | May 18, 2010 1:44 PM | Report abuse

Stop thinking of this junk as "treats"!

When you're eating well, that stuff tastes bad and makes you feel worse.

Posted by: chunche | May 18, 2010 2:00 PM | Report abuse

Amen! Junk food is only a "treat" because a lifetime of TV marketing has trained you to think it's a "treat."

It ain't a "treat." It's a poison that's making us one of the fattest, unhealthiest countries in the developed world.

Posted by: kcx7 | May 18, 2010 2:13 PM | Report abuse

She's not advocating eating fries all the time. Frankly if she said she wanted a nice green salad for Mothers' Day she'd likely be criticized for being elitist and high-and-mighty and frankly a health freak (as opposed to someone who was concerned about her health, there is a connotative difference) that would dissociate her from being an accessible public figure (and if she's not accessible, her message loses punch because it's no longer "hey, I can do that too" but "well Mrs. Obama can do it, good for her, but what about me?").

Posted by: | May 18, 2010 2:38 PM | Report abuse

"When you're eating well, that stuff tastes bad and makes you feel worse."

Wrong pronoun. When you're eating well, that stuff tastes bad. Cool. When I'm eating well, there's still nothing in this world that tastes better than mac and cheese. Except maybe chocolate. Or bacon.

Marketers add sugar, fat, and salt for one reason: because it WORKS. For most people, those things taste really, really good.

If you want to fix a problem, you have to take people where they are. Not where you are. Not where you wish they were. And the plain fact is, most of us like stuff that's bad for us (I could go years without a Big Mac, and yet kohlrabi would still be completely inedible). Once you accept that, then you can teach people ways to work around the problem -- like, say, reserving the big fried chicken and mac and cheese dinner for an occasional "treat."

Posted by: laura33 | May 18, 2010 3:00 PM | Report abuse

Question to Ms. Huget: Do you and your family always eat "healthy"? Or do you have special "treats" that are objectively not healthy, but which you occasionally indulge in?

I'll bet it's the latter.

Posted by: rlguenther | May 18, 2010 3:48 PM | Report abuse

It's not inconsistent. She's neither saying children should eat nothing but carrots (or veggies or grilled/baked meats), nor is she saying she eats fries and burgers and fried chicken all the time. If anything, what she's doing is better than all those fad diets out there that advocate cutting all carbs/meats/fats/whatever out of your meals--those are dumb and a lot of people end up gaining back lost weight because they can't maintain diets of boring food.

Posted by: dkp01 | May 18, 2010 4:25 PM | Report abuse

How about Jillian from the biggest loser the other night...with the freezer full of ice cream...

Posted by: lats | May 18, 2010 11:03 PM | Report abuse

Amen! Junk food is only a "treat" because a lifetime of TV marketing has trained you to think it's a "treat."

It ain't a "treat." It's a poison that's making us one of the fattest, unhealthiest countries in the developed world.

Posted by: kcx7 | May 18, 2010 2:13 PM | Report abuse


Geez, relax. For starters, most of the foods the first lady mentioned have been around significantly longer than TV. (She included "greens" on the list, in case you didn't notice.) Rich, high-calorie food, in and of itself, is not what is making us fat. It's that we eat far too much of it and far too often. If I have one glass of wine with dinner, am I an alcoholic who is poisoning my body? No. Neither am I killing myself if for a special-occasion dinner I want to have a tasty steak and a baked potato with sour cream and some cheesecake. Now, if I do this five nights a week, THEN we have a problem.

Posted by: gmg22 | May 18, 2010 11:46 PM | Report abuse

1) fried chicken and french fries
2) greens
3) macaroni and cheese
4) burgers and fries

RE: I see a pattern here: fries.

What pattern??? It's obvious that Rosemary (the interviewer) and Jenniffer have a not-so-hidden agenda. Michelle mentioned french fries just twice in a list of 4 potential meals before being rudely interrupted. And the two meals where french fries were mentioned were meals that are typically associated with french fries. She didn't say carrot (though who knows what she might have said if she hadn't been interrupted), but she mentioned greens, what's the difference. How is a list that includes "greens" anti-carrot???

Posted by: ogs123 | May 19, 2010 12:09 PM | Report abuse

I think it IS setting a good example to save treats like french fries for special occasions!

Posted by: kimk1 | May 19, 2010 12:31 PM | Report abuse

get real people, potato's are healthy. it's not like she said a pound of chocolate or processed food. everything she mentioned can be prepared healthy, even the chicken.

Posted by: nall92 | May 20, 2010 12:40 PM | Report abuse

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