Partnership for a Healthier America Summit

Childhood obesity is improving, but First Lady Michelle Obama urges food companies to do more

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Childhood obesity improving but FLOTUS urges food companies to do more

Related tags Nutrition

Childhood obesity rates have “finally” stopped rising and now are falling among America’s youngest children, thanks in part to the food industry’s efforts to cut calories and offer healthier options, but more needs to be done, said First Lady Michelle Obama at the Partnership for Healthier America’s annual summit Feb. 26. 

“We have truly changed the culture around healthy eating and living in this country”​ in the five years since the Let’s Move! campaign to eliminate childhood obesity in a generation was launched, Obama said, reflecting on data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey that found the prevalence of obesity among 2- to 5-year-olds has fallen from 13.9% in 2003-2004 to 8.4% in 2011-2012.

“Food companies are racing like never before to create healthier versions of their products. Even convenience stores are selling fruits and vegetables. Head to the local drive-thu and the kid’s meals might include apples and skim milk. Hit the aisles of the nearest Walmart and you’ll find new healthy labels on their products. Schools are growing gardens – they’re moving beyond just pizza and tater tots to lunches filled with fresh produce and whole grains,”​ she said.

The Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, a coalition of food and beverage manufacturers, trade associations, restaurants and others, also substantially helped reduce those calories, added William Dietz, director of the Sumner M. Redstone Global Center for Prevention and Wellness at George Washington University. He noted at the summit that the coalition cut 6.4 trillion calories from the American marketplace in just five years after it launched in 2009 – far exceeding its stated commitment under the Let’s Move! campaign to reduce 1.5 trillion calories in the marketplace.

He also noted the significant decline in consumption of sugary beverages as a contributing factor. According to CDC, the percentage of children drinking one full-calorie soda per day fell from 33.8% in 2007 to 27.8% in 2011.

More progress needed

“The results have been beyond anything we could have imagined. … So yeah, a whole lot to celebrate on this fifth anniversary of  Let’s Move,”​ Obama said.

But, she added in a sobering tone: “Let’s be clear. While the progress we have made is impressive, it is also incredibly fragile. We are just beginning to move the needle on this issue”​ and “the statistics are still daunting.”

She noted that one in three children in the U.S. are still overweight or obese and for black and Hispanic children that rate rises to 40%.

There also are significant disparities among age, Dietz said, citing CDC data that found 17.5% of 6- to 11-year-olds and 20.5% of 12- to 19-year-olds were obese in 2011-2012. To help children in these age groups come in line with their target weights, children 6 to 11 years old need to reduce their daily intake of calories by 150 and children 12 to 19 years old need to reduce their daily intake by 180 calories compared to just a 30 calorie reduction per day for 2 to 5 year olds, he added.

“If we take our foot off the pedal for even a single minute, then we will go right back to where we started,” ​Obama said, urging the food industry and children’s health advocates to “get in the game”​ and “do even more.”

In particular she called on them to defend the new school lunch requirements outlined in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which critics say sets standards that are too expensive or difficult to meet. Obama noted that despite aggressive attacks, 90% of schools have successfully implemented or expanded compliance with the standards and that “kids are happily eating those healthier meals.”

Answering the First Lady’s call

One way the food industry can rise to Obama’s challenge to do more is to amend the “crazy choice”​ it currently gives consumers who want healthy food, said Indra Nooyi, chair of the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation and CEO of PepsiCo.

“Today we are giving consumers a crazy choice if they want healthy food it is not great tasting, it is more expensive and it is like a treasure hunt” ​ to find it in the store, she said at the summit. “Consumers should not have to make those choices. We should give them healthy food that tastes good, food that is fun and ubiquitously available and priced affordably.”

She noted that PepsiCo is striving to meet this challenge through three initiatives:

  • First by “increasing the permissibility of our fun foods”​ by reducing the salt, sugar and fat in them, Nooyi said. Already more than 50% of the beverages the company markets are zero-or low-sugar, it uses a healthier oil now to prepare many of its chips and it has reduced the salt in its Doritos, she said. Many of these changes have been done on the sly out of concern that consumers would reject healthier reformulations, she added.
  • Second, “we said let’s dial up the sale of healthier foods,”​ Nooyi said. “We are really working on Quaker Oats, Tropicana and Naked Juice to make sure we really provide a healthy choice”​ that also tastes good and is affordable.
  • Third, the company is committed to reinstating realistic portions through smaller packaging, she said.

Campbell Soup Co expands healthy options

Campbell Soup Co. also is rising to the challenge by expanding its packaged fresh foods and also making 91% of its foods less than 200 calories per serving, CEO Denise Morrison said at the meeting.

She added that making foods healthier for consumers is also good for business.

“Give consumers better products and sales will increase, as will shareholder value,”​ she said. (Read more about how Campbell’s is banking on healthy foods helping revitalize its business HERE​.) 

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