As a Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama and his wife Michelle ate a cheesesteak and fries during a campaign stop at Pat's King of Steaks.
Until Michelle Obama writes a mega-selling diet book — be it “First Ladies Don’t Get Fat” or “The South Lawn Diet” — two questions loom: What do the Obamas eat at home, and how do they stay so thin?
No idle questions, these. Health care policy is dominating Capitol Hill at a time when a sports-loving president has set an example of fitness and a svelte first lady has revived the notion of the backyard vegetable garden. Yet the first couple often publicly enjoy hearty servings of not-so-healthful food — and allow their daughters to indulge, too. Little wonder that the blog Obama Foodorama, run by Eddie Gehman Kohan, has been overwhelmed with interest in the presidential meal plan. “People just don’t know how to eat — and don’t know what to eat in order not to be fat. They are looking to the Obamas like, ‘How did you do this?’” said Kohan.
Nutrition experts, too, say Americans need a much better glimpse of what’s being dished up behind the gates of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. “We have no idea what their regular breakfasts, lunches and dinners are like,” said American Dietetic Association spokeswoman and D.C. nutritionist Katherine Tallmadge. “Burgers, that’s all I ever hear about. They go to burger joints because it shows they’re just like everybody else, but everybody else is overweight.”
That’s not exactly an exaggeration: Nearly two-thirds of all adults over age 20 are overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What’s worse, American adults are less likely to perceive themselves as overweight than they were 10 years ago, even though obesity rates increased substantially during the same period, according to a new study by economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston and Florida State University. “People base their perception of themselves on what’s average for the people around them, and that average has increased over time,” said Reserve Bank economist Mary Burke. “There are more overweight people out there who no longer think they are overweight, and that’s cause for concern.”
If the Obamas have a diet secret, it is that they’ve achieved the elusive “balanced” lifestyle — a concept that has been preached for years by health secretaries, doctors and even the fast-food, candy and beverage industries.
The first couple fit in early-morning workout sessions before the day begins, and the president is known to play basketball. A vegetable garden has been planted on the White House grounds, where daughters Sasha and Malia play on their swing set and run about with the first dog, Bo.
And as a result, they can afford some high-calorie indulgence. In a London restaurant earlier this month, Malia and Sasha ordered a cheese platter and battered fish and chips, and they drank Pepsi, according to reports. The first lady ordered a sirloin steak and wine. And yes, there are the presidential runs to Ben’s Chili Bowl, Five Guys and Ray’s Hell Burger.
“We try not to do diets, as opposed to just change our lifestyle,” White House chef Sam Kass said in a White House video earlier this month. “A diet means you’re inherently going to fall off of it.”
On the policy side, striking a balance between government intervention on America’s waistlines and motivating by example may be more difficult. Some health experts say that sections of America could be resistant to Obama’s policies, especially if his family eating habits swing too far from that of the average Joe, an unpleasant intrusion for the palates of a nation that invented the Luther Burger — a bacon cheeseburger squeezed between a grilled Krispy Kreme doughnut.
The White House has seemingly acknowledged that Americans need some leadership in the kitchen — if not outright hand-holding. Obama’s Health and Human Services Department appointments so far have favored officials who have helped slap calorie counts on menus and imposed aggressive smoking bans. But that approach could encourage Americans to depend on the government for their weight control, according to Center for Consumer Freedom senior research analyst J. Justin Wilson. “He’s been fair in talking about physical activity — calories in versus calories out. Yet with these appointments, it seems to me he’s suggesting that obesity is a government problem.”
The politics of food and willpower is often a tough act for politicians. Americans love sharing their tastiest morsels with elected officials — and it’s hard to pass up spending time with constituents at diners, apple pie festivals and hometown fair BBQ stands.
“The pressure for politicians to eat like the common guy is part of the human condition. Eating with someone means connecting by sharing their kind of food,” said Tufts University nutrition associate professor Parke Wilde. “You can’t refuse to participate in the way most people eat.”
On the campaign trail, Obama ate his share of pie — or at least talked about how much he loves it. But he wasn’t without foodie missteps. The press famously bemoaned Obama’s perceived lack of connection with rural voters in 2007 when he asked an Iowa farm crowd if anyone had “gone into Whole Foods lately and seen what they charge for arugula.”
For the Obama administration, simply finding a delicate way to highlight the nation’s waistline expansion while avoiding the holier-than-thou image of a thin president wagging his finger at the fat populace won’t be easy. But the lesson of moderation may be best communicated through the family’s failings, rather than its perfections. “People don’t all perceive him as a health perfectionist. As someone who already struggles with a health decision — smoking — that sets him apart,” said MeMe Roth, founder of National Action Against Obesity. “He has to come across as health conscious, not a foodie.”