First lady Michelle Obama is taking on a tough but crucial challenge with her new national campaign, “Let’s Move,” to combat childhood obesity. Just looking at these frightening facts: Almost one in three children in this country is overweight. About 17 percent are dangerously obese. And a quarter of all kids from 5 to 10 already have high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol levels. What’s cause for concern isn’t only how much we know about the prevalence of childhood obesity but also how little we know about how to prevent it through healthy eating.
To put in bluntly, we know very little about how to eat to be healthy. We’re bombarded with conflicting advice: A little red wine is good for your heart, but it might lead to breast cancer, so don’t have too much. Eat more protein and less carbs, or is it more carbs and less protein? I’m a nutrition ‘expert’ and it’s even difficult for me to sort out which advice makes sense. All this contradictory advice leaves eaters—that is, all of us—confused. The truth is that each individual piece of advice might be correct on its own, but because eating and all the physiological processes that follow are extremely complex, it’s very difficult to understand how the large variety of foods and beverages you ingest works together, or against each other.
Then there are the genetic differences between individuals, which make measuring dietary effects even tougher. For example, my liver might metabolize caffeine much faster than yours, which allows me to drink coffee with no ill effects. But your slower rate of metabolizing caffeine could mean one cup will keep you awake at night. There are even differing results related to exercise and weight control. Clearly eating less and exercising more works–but we knew that centuries ago. What new advice can we give to people after decades of intensive study?
The promising new field of nutrigenomics may help us create individually tailored diets that work best for each person’s unique set of characteristics. For some, cruciferous vegetables (such as broccoli, cauliflower and kale) may protect against certain types of cancer. For others, eating a high-fat diet may have little impact on their health or may even be beneficial. All this suggests that, in the fight against childhood obesity, the nation’s focus should include not only more education but also more research so we can learn more about how to help our kids to become fit, not fat.
Fortunately, President Obama is proposing a significant increase in the peer-reviewed research at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The Agriculture and Food Research Initiative would receive $166 million more in federal funds. But, even with this boost, the program would fall well short of the $700 million that was authorized by Congress in the Farm Bill two years ago. In fact, the total funding proposed for research at the USDA is about the same as last year. At a minimum, Congress should improve the increase that the president proposes and then take a long look at where and how the nation’s nutritional research needs to be, if you will excuse this expression, beefed up.
Reducing childhood obesity will require more than “moving” and marketing, important as these efforts are. We need a greater understanding of the human body and how we react to the foods we consume. Then we can teach parents and kids how to get the nourishment that we need without packing on the extra pounds that we don’t need. Before we can get in shape, we have to get smart about nutrition. Then, the first lady’s campaign can create a lasting legacy of good health as well as good headlines.
Allen Levine is the director of the Minnesota Obesity Center and dean of the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences at the University of Minnesota. The views he expresses are his own and do not reflect an official position of the University of Minnesota.