Obesity: The First Lady Takes on the NRA (No, Not That NRA)

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Turkey Meatball Hero Sandwich with Mozzarella Cheese

Of all the safe, healthy, can’t-we-all-get-along causes First Lady Michelle Obama could have made her focus, you’d think childhood obesity would be an easy one.

When 33% of American kids are overweight or obese, the importance of getting them off the couch and away from the cheese fries ought to be an easy call. But in the partisan snake pit of Washington, nothing is easy.

During a December episode of Sarah Palin’s Alaska, the one-time governor took a swipe at Obama’s Let’s Move campaign — designed to encourage kids to eat better and exercise more — when she was showing how to make s’mores. “This is in honor of Michelle Obama,” Palin said, “who said the other day we should not have dessert.” When Obama successfully persuaded Wal-Mart to cut prices on fruits and vegetables and reformulate some of its foods to reduce calories and fat, Rush Limbaugh accused her of bullying or pressuring the retail giant. (More on Time.com: Parents, Principals Don’t Like School Lunch Rules)

All the same, Obama is pressing on, and as the New York Times noted Monday, she is now in talks with the National Restaurant Association (NRA) to improve the menu items offered to children — specifically by reducing portion size and offering healthier alternatives like carrots or apples in place of French fries and other fatty sides. There is very good reason to implement those changes — and much sooner rather than later.

The biggest reason for the new urgency is that restaurants play a bigger role than ever in what Americans eat. One out of every two nutrition dollars is spent on food outside the home — up from one out of every four in the early 1960s. And one out of every three meals is a restaurant meal.

Kids’ menus, as the First Lady noted in a talk she gave to the NRA last year, don’t help much, with the limited, high-calorie choices they usually offer. Close to 90% of them include macaroni and cheese, 80% have chicken fingers and 60% have hamburgers or cheeseburgers. “Most kids menus look pretty much the same,” she said, “and trust me, we’ve seen a lot of them.” (More on Time.com: New Dietary Guidelines Show Politics Still Trumps Science)

It’s no secret too that portion sizes — both on kids’ and adults’ menus — have expanded over the years, but since it’s been more of an inexorable creep than a sudden explosion, many people don’t notice it. The National Institute for Childhood Health and Development, cites a few lamentable examples. An order of spaghetti and meatballs, a kids’ favorite if ever there was one, has doubled its quantity of sauce over time — from one cup to two — and increased the size of the meatballs commensurately. The calorie load, as a result, has ballooned from 500 to 1,200. An average blueberry muffin has gone from 1.5 oz. to 5 oz. and from 210 calories to 500. The diameter of a bagel has doubled from 3 to 6 inches, sending the calorie count from 140 to 350.

Even a small improvement in all of this could make a very big difference. A study last year in the journal Pediatrics found that when fast food restaurants provide calorie counts on menus, parents of kids in the 3-to-6 age group order their children meals that, on average, have 102 fewer calories. That factors out to more than 3,000 extra calories per month, which itself is just about what it takes to gain a pound. Do that every month year after year and the pounds add up fast.

The First Lady’s office is cautioning  that a meaningful change in the nation’s menu choices is not imminent and that discussions between Obama and the restaurateurs were progressing slowly — one way that this NRA is a lot like the other one. Still, the steps she recommends are simple and hard to argue with — reducing portion sizes, serving 1% or skim milk instead of whole, substituting wheat pasta for white pasta, offering more grilled meat entrees and reducing the reliance on butter and cream. She also recommends a sort of French fry opt-in: making carrots or apple slices a default choice on menus and requiring diners to ask for fries. (More on Time.com: Eating Fatty Foods May Up Your Risk of Depression)

Even in the current political climate, voluntary downsizing of menus and kids’ waistlines does not have to be a constitutional liberties issue. If the Founding Fathers cared about anything, after all, it was our posterity.