Spotlight on Obesity

Posted Jan. 31, 2010, at 4:32 p.m.

The first lady has often discussed obesity in her first year and emphasized good nutrition by starting a vegetable garden in the White House lawn. Now she has declared it her major project and plans to announce a national campaign next month. Maine has plenty of helpful information about childhood obesity — how to give up sodas for healthful drinks, how to switch from fast foods, laden with sugar and fat, to fresh fruit and vegetables, and how to spend more time in outdoor exercise and less time with television, computer and video games.

Where Michelle Obama can help, with her new focus on the issue, is to supply emphasis and clout. So says Katherine Musgrave, the retired University of Maine nutritionist who has taught generations of students how to eat and live more healthfully and continues to teach class on the Web, and counsel patients.

She applauds Mrs. Obama’s decision and says she would welcome a visit by the first lady to Maine and more particularly to Washington County, where the winter days seem even shorter and the nights longer than in most of the rest of Maine.

Ms. Musgrave says that it’s already dark when students get home from school. They are hungry and get something to eat. Later, they have dinner, so they get four meals a day, with little or no exercise. Instead of fast foods, they need a nutritious diet and exercise to work off the calories. She says poverty aggravates obesity, since fruits and vegetables, whole grain products and leaner protein sources cost more than high-fat and high-sodium processed foods.

Maine’s chief health officer, Dr. Dora Anne Mills, says she hopes Mrs. Obama will stress a comprehensive approach to the problem of excessive obesity in children. She calls it an emerging statewide epidemic, something like the height of tobacco addiction 25 years ago. But it is even harder to combat, since it is “woven into the fabric of our society.” Fighting it involves how food is produced and marketed, how children spend so much time sitting at computers or watching television instead of walking or playing outside, and even how buildings are constructed, so that “it’s hard to find a staircase.”

She blames the constant bombardment of advertising for fatty and sugary drinks and foods and notes that there is no such promotion of broccoli.

Rep. Mike Michaud, Democrat of Maine’s 2nd District, called attention to a pending congressional resolution citing the first lady’s initiative and asking President Barack Obama to designate September as National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month to promote healthful eating and physical activity.

Maine is rated as the fattest state in New England, and Michelle Obama can help curb the epidemic.

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