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Posted at 6:05 PM ET, 02/ 7/2011

The politics of fat: Michelle Obama, Palin and my elliptical machine

By Stephen Stromberg

Friday a new study revealed that the world obesity rate has doubled since 1980. This, along with its attendant public health problems, seems like the sort of thing people in government should care about, especially in America -- among the fattest of them all.

Enter Michelle Obama, who on Tuesday begins a three-day publicity tour promoting her "Let's Move" anti-obesity campaign, as she continues talks with the restaurant industry to (voluntarily) improve the healthfulness of their dishes. When the first lady did this sort of thing last year, Glenn Beck mocked her for wanting to take away his french fries and force carrot sticks down his throat, and Sarah Palin insisted that Obama doesn't want Americans to have dessert.

The first lady's push comes a week after the Agriculture Department announced new dietary guidelines. Hardly federal overreach -- but folks such as Beck, Palin and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) were all worried about federal intrusion into the diets of Americans before this once-in-five-years announcement, and before the first lady's initiative persuaded Wal-Mart to sell healthier snacks, also last month.

As Fred Hiatt has explained, there are many reasons -- economic, cultural and political -- why anti-obesity campaigns have become controversial, including Tea Party anti-government excess. Another part of it, though, is that fat has become pretty normal, making this an issue with visceral resonance for lots of Americans who clearly like their fries and see a broad consensus in favor of eating lots of them.

We see signs of this every day. As I write this, I'm on an elliptical machine at The Post's gym. When the machine asked for my weight, it defaulted to 180 pounds. 180? Really? I'm only 5'9"!

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's aptly named "FATSTATS" Web site, the average adult American is about 5 feet, 6.6 inches. Which means that this machine is programmed to assume that its average user has a body-mass index score of 28.5; according to the CDC, that's not just overweight, it's on the high end of overweight. But look up the CDC numbers on the weight of the average American, and it turns out that this is exactly what the elliptical machine should expect.

So government at all levels can provide clear, detailed information on nutrition to Americans, which means dietary recommendations and requirements that food producers provide more nutrition information on their products. This may not change many Americans' tastes, but it's still useful for those who care -- and it really isn't hard, anyway. Those in or near government can also encourage voluntary actions that promote healthy habits, as the first lady did with Wal-Mart. Having to type this out feels almost embarrassing -- none of it should be controversial, just as probably none of it is ambitious enough to reverse the fattening of the country.

What Michelle Obama doesn't endorse -- though it is a good idea, nevertheless -- is policy that sees the social costs of our over-consumption better reflected in the sticker price we pay for our food -- through, yes, a tax on things such as sugary drinks. This sort of accounting encourages more rational thinking about what you're doing to yourself, and to all those around you whom you expect to pay your medical bills when you get older. Still, that's something Palin, Beck, Coburn -- and, no doubt, tax-averse Republicans all over -- are sure to hate, even though it's more about encouraging personal responsibility than nanny statism. Maybe they don't use the elliptical much.

By Stephen Stromberg  | February 7, 2011; 6:05 PM ET
Categories:  Stromberg  | Tags:  Stephen Stromberg  
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Palin and Beck are right. There's no limit to what the socialists want to control. The government is spending about 2 trillion more than it should and now it wants to dictate food choices.

Posted by: jy151310 | February 7, 2011 8:29 PM | Report abuse

Absolutely we're a fat nation.
But I don't see the feds controlling it's one thing to require sufficient information to inform the trolls that what they're eating is bad for them...quite another to stop them from ingesting three Big Macs at a time with a supersized order of fries and a strawberry shake!

Posted by: joy5 | February 7, 2011 9:05 PM | Report abuse

The biggest contributor to American obesity is the federal government. It pays the farmers to grow the corn and it pays the manufacturers to make High Fructose Corn Syrup. They do the same thing with ethanol.

Our taxes go to pay for HFCS which is ruining our health. If there were not so many people getting rich of this poisonous ripoff - it would be banned for the cost to our nation for diabetes and obesity which costs billions to treat and an early death.

Posted by: alance | February 7, 2011 9:15 PM | Report abuse

The biggest contributor to American obesity is the federal government. It pays the farmers to grow the corn and it pays the manufacturers to make High Fructose Corn Syrup. They do the same thing with ethanol.

Our taxes go to pay for HFCS which is ruining our health. If there were not so many people getting rich of this poisonous ripoff - it would be banned for the cost to our nation for diabetes and obesity which costs billions to treat and an early death.

Posted by: alance
What a load of c@#p, conservatism is all about personal responsibility. Getting fat is about a lack of it, its your fault, deal with it, dont blame the government because u cant get off your as# enough and exercise you stupid stupid shallow pri#k.

It is those red states that love those ethanol federal subsidies btw.

Posted by: Chops2 | February 8, 2011 12:27 AM | Report abuse

Food is cultural. I moved to Korea a few years back and lost 35 pounds in a year, and still have it lost (I weigh 145 lbs).

The simple fact that there isn't fast food restaurants every where allow me to not be tempted after a stressful day at work. I cook my own food and eat vegetables with every meal.

I don't know if you could change American food culture, but I'm glad I moved here. I will live longer (and have better sex).

Posted by: dmblum | February 8, 2011 1:19 AM | Report abuse

FFS stop subsidizing the main ingredient of sugary drinks before you decide to tax them. You are normally one of the intelligent liberals, I mean come on.

Posted by: WilliamGriffin | February 8, 2011 1:53 AM | Report abuse

Have you ever heard of a place called "123 Get Samples" on the web, they give out a free samples of major brands to promote their products. I just got mine.

Posted by: mariadix8 | February 8, 2011 2:14 AM | Report abuse

On of the biggest marketing and PR tactics for man-made chemical sweeteners has been the claim that they help in the battle against obesity. They don't. They never have and they never will.

The research and the epidemiologic data shows that the opposite is true, and that artificial sweeteners such as aspartame and neotame lead to weight gain. There's more to weight gain or weight loss than mere calorie intake.

One reason for aspartame and neotame's potential to cause weight gain is because phenylalanine and aspartic acid – the two amino acids that make up 90 percent of aspartame and are also present in neotame -- are known to rapidly stimulate the release of insulin and leptin; two hormones that are intricately involved with satiety and fat storage.

Insulin and leptin are also the primary hormones that regulate your metabolism.

So although you're not ingesting calories in the form of sugar, aspartame and neotame can still raise your insulin and leptin levels. Elevated insulin and leptin levels, in turn, are two of the driving forces behind obesity, diabetes, and a number of our current chronic disease epidemics.

Over time, if your body is exposed to too much leptin, it will become resistant to it, just as your body can become resistant to insulin, and once that happens, your body can no longer "hear" the hormonal messages instructing your body to stop eating, burn fat, and maintain good sensitivity to sweet tastes in your taste buds.

You remain hungry; you crave sweets, and your body stores more fat.

Leptin-resistance also causes an increase in visceral fat, sending you on a vicious cycle of hunger, fat storage and an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, metabolic syndrome and more.

Aspartame was approved by the FDA in 1982, just when the fat epidemic in America began.

Posted by: angel6 | February 8, 2011 7:25 AM | Report abuse

@jy151310 said: "Palin and Beck are right. There's no limit to what the socialists want to control. The government is spending about 2 trillion more than it should and now it wants to dictate food choices."

This is exactly the kind of asinine remark from the Far Right that the article obliquely criticizes. The key words are "socialist", "control", and "dictate". This poor person, like so many others, is a victim of the hysterical fear-mongering that spews each and every day from Fox "News" and hundreds of right-wing hate radio programs.

jy000000, every measure described is VOLUNTARY. That means YOU DON'T HAVE TO DO IT. If you object to healthy food for your kids, you can still easily find fat- and sugar-soaked poison that will send them to an early grave. Knock yourself out!

There is no "control" being exerted by a "socialist" "dictator". These are false fears put into you by the media gods you worship, and nothing more. You are merely a vessel for their conspiracy theories, and you are a very shallow vessel indeed.

Posted by: MarkFromOhio | February 8, 2011 7:48 AM | Report abuse

Michelle's hypocrisy is showing (in addition to that HUGE caboose she's toting around). The junk she served up at hubby's "I Love Me" Super Bowl party was ladled with empty calories, fats, and cholesterol. Not exactly setting a good example. Not to worry, though. Darwinism will soon enough take care of all the disgusting fat bodies out there.

Posted by: jpost1 | February 8, 2011 7:55 AM | Report abuse

The same people who don't want to even encourage children to eat less sugar and fat will be among the first to file for Medicaid when they can't pay for the "pre-existing" condition of diabetes.

I'm surprised these dunderheads didn't accuse Laura Bush of socialism when she encouraged Americans to read books. Wasn't that government intrusion on red staters' right to be ignorant?

Posted by: mullingitover1 | February 8, 2011 7:57 AM | Report abuse

If you can read, there is no reason why you are not to fault when you purchase those items that are fat and sugar laden.

If you can cook, there is no justification for your being unable to provide healthful meals for yourself and others.

If you are fat, the government's aiding farmers, companies, corn growers or anyone else is not the problem.

If you are fat, it is your inability to garner up the ability to say no to that which is making you fat.

It doesn't matter what Michelle, Palin or Beck say. And if you are so afraid that the government is TELLING you what you can eat and not eat, you are using that as an excuse and you will remain fat.

Posted by: limpscomb | February 8, 2011 8:23 AM | Report abuse

The reason for the obesity crisis is quite simple to understand. The federal government has embedded their twenty pound cranial extension into our nether region and this mass is growing at a fairly substantial rate.

Posted by: jr3901 | February 8, 2011 8:41 AM | Report abuse

Of course Mrs. Obama would not endorse a tax on unhealthy foods or drinks, because the burden of such a tax would fall disproportionately on her husband's key constituents -- those either on food stamp aid or otherwise marginally productive.

Posted by: questioneverything | February 8, 2011 9:04 AM | Report abuse

Why is being provided with accurate and useful data, along with the recommendations of experts in the field regarded as a socialist government power play?
You aren't going to buy a car or a stereo without researching features and value. You will most likely look for sources of information that compile data from comparisons and tests before making your choice.
Giving you the information you need to make important decisions about your own life is not dictating to you, it's handing you the tools you need to take responsibility and make a choice. (NOT giving you the information you need would be taking the power of making an informed choice away from you. THAT would be government control.)
As for forcing dietary decisions down your throat, when's the last time you were at a restaurant (not fast food) and *not* had the server suggest the special of the day? And health advice? Every time I see my doctor, he has recommendations on my diet and exercise. The people who've done the research, compiled the reports, and made the recommendations are better qualified than wait staff and most GP-MDs to assess and explain the data.
This is an example of the government doing what it's supposed to do: Giving us, the people, the information and analysis we need to make our own choices. What we do with the information is entirely our business. And entirely our responsibility.

Posted by: kdkwriter | February 8, 2011 9:11 AM | Report abuse


Posted by: betheloveyouare | February 8, 2011 9:37 AM | Report abuse

What's wrong with taxing junk food? We tax other luxuries that aren't healthy, why not this one? We know cigarettes are bad for you, so is alcohol. Both are taxed extensively. Since the obvious growth of one's backside isn't enough to convince you to lose weight, perhaps a hit to your pocketbook will...

Posted by: The_Bruce | February 8, 2011 10:31 AM | Report abuse

Let Palin and Beck put their money where their mouth is. Take away ALL food subsidies and let the fair market sort it out. Big agriculture has too many advantages. At least let the vegetables have a chance.

Posted by: Jem248 | February 8, 2011 11:12 AM | Report abuse

This is huge problem. In fact, it's impacted our military readiness. A significant percentage of potential recruits are physically unfit to serve.

Why does Glenn Beck want to see America fail?

Posted by: krickey7 | February 8, 2011 11:39 AM | Report abuse

There are some conservatives, such as economist Greg Mankiw, who support taxing sugary soft drinks and other junk foods. Read up on the concept of Pygovian taxation. The reasoning is that certain market activities (e.g., selling high calorie, low-nutrition food) generate negative externalities that inevitably cost the state and its taxpapers money. A tax on these activities does two things: 1) generates some revenue to pay for those costs to the state and 2) reduces demand for those products.

Posted by: mthand111 | February 8, 2011 1:22 PM | Report abuse

MarkFromOhio; Jem248; Joy5;all

personal to "MarkfromOhio": not only are you wrong about Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, "right-wingers" & the TEA PARTY
you are also typical of the SELF-impressed, hate-FILLED, elitist folks on the left end of the political spectrum, who actually BELIEVE "the main-SLIME media" and think that "government knows best" for citizens.

the TRUTH (the truth is NOT wishful thinking, opinions, or anything else but the TRUTH.) is that every time that "the feds" stick their noses into the personal affairs of ordinary people (like me for example), these are the results:
1. massive overspending/waste/fraud/abuse of power,
2. "advice" becomes "rules"
3. "rules" become laws/directives/orders
(more federal control)
4."regular folks" want NONE of any of those "benefits". instead, we want to be LEFT ALONE to make our own decisions.
(whether our personal choices are good/wise/wrong/stupid is NONE of your affair. nor is it the legitimate business of "government".)

personal to "Jem248": cutting off all federal subsidies to agriculture, energy companies, etc is ONE of the TEA PARTY's MAIN objectives. we TEA PARTIERS simply wan the government OUT of our lives & out of our wallets/purses.
(there MAY be some positive results from subsidies to SMALL farmers/businesses but Big Oil, Big Agriculture, etc. neither needs nor deserves our tax money. they are doing "just fine, thanks.")

personal to "Joy5": you are CORRECT!

to ALL: the hate-FILLED, bigoted, arrogant, MEAN-spirited ignorance & self-possession of the LEFTISTS/DIMocRAT "leaders" is the MAIN reason that the TEA PARTY is growing 5-6% a week. the TEA PARTY will soon be larger than the GOP & the DIMocRAT parties, combined.

we TEA PARTIERS simply want the "goverment at every level"
1. OUT of our lives,
(every federal department/agency/office is BLOATED & each budget should be cut by at least 15-20%. there is enough waste/fraud/abuse/NEEDLESS spending in most any every federal agency to still do the NEEDFUL/critical functions at 25% less spending.)
2. the budget SLASHED of all the waste/fraud/abuse,
3. duplications of effort ended throughout the government,
4.taxes cut for everyone, permanently,
5. spending frozen at FY2000 levels or below,
6. NO more taxes on anything be passed without a 2/3 vote of both houses of Congress & the signature of the POTUS,
7. that "obamacare" & all the other many boondoggles of BHO & the DIMocRAT "leadership" repealed/ended & no more "social programs", "entitlement spending", "social experimentation" or "unfunded federal mandates" be passed into law
8. that every possible "federal program" be returned to the lowest possible level of government, consistant with the ability of city/county/parish/state government to manage/solve those problems.

just my personal opinion. = i do NOT & can NOT speak officially for our county's TEA PARTY on any subject, absent a vote on each issue.

yours, TN46
coordinator, CCTP

Posted by: texasnative46 | February 8, 2011 1:27 PM | Report abuse

Michelle Obama is much fatter than Sarah Palin. It is obvious to anyone who looks.

Posted by: kirkcomm | February 8, 2011 1:57 PM | Report abuse

4 words: President's SuperBowl Party Menu

Sausages, deep dish pizza, potato salad, ice cream

And one day later, after gorging on a fatty, grease ridden feast, Michelle Obama waddles out to tell us how to eat healthy.

Posted by: AnnsThought | February 8, 2011 2:03 PM | Report abuse

Conservatives' love of bad food, their fear of people of color, and their gun fetish go hand in hand. They are simply too fat and out-of-shape to fight or even run away. I went to a Tea Party rally in Boston in 2009 and it was the first time I'd ever seen protesters sitting on the ground holding up signs.

Posted by: dnahatch1 | February 8, 2011 2:29 PM | Report abuse


do you enjoy being ridiculed & laughed AT?
could it be that you are really a member of some right-wing organization or the GOP & are trying (and succeeding!) in making the LEFTISTS/DIMocRATS look stupid?

further, obviously you've attended FEW protests OR you're just plain LYING.
(fyi, i'm one of the first of the TEA PARTIERS & i've seen FEW ablebodied TEA PARTY members sitting down at our rallies. obviously, our elderly and/or disabled members sit when/where necessary.)

but, PLEASE, "rant on" as you are making TEA PARTY members out of "moderate to conservative voters", as those fine folks do NOT wish to be associated with liars/bigots/nitwits and/or FOOLS.

laughing AT you!

yours, TN46
coordinator, CCTPP

Posted by: texasnative46 | February 8, 2011 3:35 PM | Report abuse

It's incredible to hear people criticize Michelle Obama about her campaign to urge people and businesses to strive for healthier choices when it comes to food and lifestyles. The sheer nastiness of some of them is not just appalling, it's so hypocritical, because I suspect these are the same people who scream the loudest when someone says something they don't like about Sarah Palin.

Many Americans are very overweight and it's costing all Americans every day. And despite being obese, these people are often malnourished. It's not the government's fault, but the government can help by not funding junk food. I don't want my tax dollars subsidizing farms who grow corn for high fructose corn syrup in soda and other things, and I don't want my insurance premiums to keep going up because of the medical problems these fat people generate because they won't make healthy choices.

You who criticize Michelle Obama's campaign and align yourself with crazy Sarah Palin can just pull out your wallets and put your money where your mouth is.

Posted by: ktvanw | February 8, 2011 3:41 PM | Report abuse

People in this country want to be left alone to dig their graves with a knife and fork because they're too pig headed to do what would make them healthy and not even willing to do something positive to help the fat little slugs they call children. Feeding a child sugar and fat is child abuse if your literate and educated especially.

The problem is that the people kvetching that the government is to blame for them being fat, or the government is being socialistic (as though they're smart enough to distinguish between socialism and communism) by suggesting we eat healthy are the same people who don't want health care, but I guarantee those fat disgusting slobs kvetching here will be the first ones to complain when they cannot afford the triple by-pass!

These are the same people who want us to do away with social security and medicare but they're not smart enough to chose water over a soda or fruit over candy!

What's more idiotic is people like kirkcomm saying something really catty like Michele is fatter that Palin, nyah, nyah... like a child on the playground.

We are officially a country of dunces who'll cut off our noses to spite our faces just to show "them" they're not going to be told what to do! Fools, fat fools but fools nonetheless.

Posted by: davidbronx | February 8, 2011 3:48 PM | Report abuse

kirkcomm: Mrs. Obama is not promoting herself as the physical ideal nor is she saying that she makes perfect choices every time. She is urging Americans to make the effort to learn the facts about nutrition then take the responsibility for making their own decisions.

Anns Thoughts: Southern cooking (aka soul food) is in my blood. Literally, according to my MD. What he recommended is exactly what the First Lady is advocating: cut down on foods you know are harmful. Now I make my hoppin' john or collards with smoked turkey necks instead of ham hocks, I grill the fish for my grits, and fried chicken is Sunday-only fare. It's taken a while, but my cholesterol and triglycerides are back to normal and my medical expenses won't be showing up on your tax bill any time soon (you're welcome). You say Mrs. Obama served a fat-filled buffet during the Super Bowl? So did just about everyone else, including me. But I've been to the gym twice since and my bag lunch today is vegan. No one – including the FDA – has said never splurge. What we are being asked to do is take responsibility for our own health and make the effort not to become a burden to our fellow Americans.

Mthand111: Within the limits of its model, Pigouvian Taxation is an excellent system and would indeed be apt for funding the billions of dollars corporations that produce cheap, unhealthy food-like products – and the consumers who eat them – are now costing you and me. Big fan of the system in the ideal. In the concrete … The problem with Pigouvian Taxation is the model assumes everyone agrees on the purpose for the tax; that everyone has the same definition of what's good and what's not. The recent attempt to apply Pigouvian negative externalities to sugar-based soft drinks was effectively torpedoed by the soft drink industry's well-targeted ad campaign that characterized the measure as elitists forcing an unfair tax on the working class. Another example I learned of this morning: A state legislator in Arizona has introduced a whimsically titled "Freedom to Breathe" intended to stop government from "overregulating" industry. This bill states there is no credible evidence that industrial pollution is in any way harmful. Until we have a global consensus on what our objectives are, Pigouvian Taxation is useless.

Posted by: kdkwriter | February 9, 2011 8:36 AM | Report abuse

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