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February 9th, 2011
Michelle Obama Thinks You Eat Too Much!

First Lady Michelle Obama addressed the National Restaurant Association on the role that restaurant meals play in the health of American children.

The First Lady, a self-proclaimed "fry lover," asked restaurateurs to "Consider reformulating your menu in pragmatic and incremental ways to create healthier versions of the foods that we all love. That could mean substituting wheat pasta for white pasta in your regular recipes, or taking out an existing - taking an existing dish and cutting the amount of butter or cream - not enough to sacrifice flavor - we all like flavor - but just enough to make a meaningful difference in the amount of calories and fat."

Remarks by Michelle Obama to the National Restaurant Association:

So today Iím going to talk about food, which is something that all of you here today know a little bit about.

Together, you represent 40 percent of the nearly one million restaurants in the United States, from the biggest chains to the smallest diners. You know what Americans like to eat and what they donít. Youíve seen how the ingredients we put in our bodies affect the way we feel and the way we feel about ourselves. And you also understand the unique role that food, and restaurants especially, play in our own lives and in the life of our nation.

Restaurants have always been places to celebrate a special occasion or mark an important milestone, to bond with new friends and grow closer as a family. They provide a service to our communities unlike any other. And even as tastes and customs have changed over time, restaurants remain an incredibly dynamic part of our American story.

And today, one out of every two dollars spent on food in this country goes towards meals outside the home -Ė and thatís double what it was just 50 years ago.

And one-third of all meals today are eaten in restaurants.

So itís clear that eating out has become part of our American way of life.

And while restaurants are still places where we go to mark a special occasion -Ė to celebrate a good report card, an anniversary, a job well done Ė- restaurants arenít just for those who can afford to splurge anymore.

Instead, theyíve grown to fit every lifestyle and every budget.

And our eating habits have evolved over time as well -Ė both in restaurants and at home -Ė but not always in ways that are good for our health.

And thatís another reason I wanted to talk to you today Ė- about an issue that is near and dear to my heart not just as First Lady, but as a mother -Ė and that is the epidemic of childhood obesity in America today.

Now, I know youíre all familiar with the statistics: how one in three children in this country is overweight or obese. And you know the consequences for their health Ė- from hypertension and diabetes to heart disease and even cancer.

And I know youíre all aware of the economic impact: the billions of dollars we spend every year treating obesity-related conditions -Ė costs that you pay in the form of rising health insurance premiums.

So itís clear that weíre facing a problem that is really big. And itís also clear that this problem has a whole range of different causes.

Our kids are spending less time outside and more time on the couch in front of the TV, video games, the Internet. At school, gym classes, recess, theyíve been eliminated or shortened. Portion sizes in this country have ballooned. In some areas, families are having a tougher time getting regular access to fresh produce. And kids these days are consuming more calories and eating more fat and sugar than ever before.

And thatís why, earlier this year, we launched ďLetís Move!Ē This is a nationwide campaign with a simple but ambitious goal: We want to solve the problem of childhood obesity in a generation, so that kids born today can reach adulthood at a healthy weight.

And ďLetís Move!Ē is about attacking this problem from all different angles. Itís about giving parents the information and the resources they need to make healthy decisions for their families. Itís about giving grocery stores - helping them to locate in underserved areas, so that every community has access to fresh and nutritious food. Itís about getting healthier food into our schools. Itís about helping our kids become more active, not just in school but at home.

But hereís the thing. Even if we give parents all the information they need and we improve school meals and build brand new supermarkets on every corner, none of that matters if when families step into a restaurant, they canít make a healthy choice.

And the truth is that while restaurants are offering more options and families take advantage of them more often, they arenít always the healthiest choices.

Research has shown that kids consume more saturated fat and less fiber and calcium when they eat out. And the meals they eat at restaurants have twice as many calories as the ones they eat at home.

Now, as parents we know that many of our kids arenít as healthy and active as they should be. And we desperately want to do things differently. But when stores and restaurants don't offer healthy options, or when parents don't have the information to make the best choices for their families, that's easier said than done.

And as Americaís restaurant owners, youíre responsible for one-third of the calories our kids get on a daily basis. The choices you make determine whatís listed on the menus, whatís advertised on billboards, and whatís served on our plates.

And your decisions about how a dish is prepared, what goes into it and where is it placed on the menu, that can have a real impact on the way people eat.

And that's why we need your help. And we need your help now, because when you see research showing that obese toddlers already display some warning signs for heart disease, itís clear that we just don't have the time to waste.

And that's why Iíve been so pleased to hear about what some of you are doing already both in working with us and on your own.

Here at the NRA, youíve developed the Food and Healthy Living Initiative to give restaurants a strong foundation for making healthy changes. Youíve launched a website, Healthydiningfinder.com, to help consumers identify healthy menu options in their area. You're keeping your members up to date with the latest information and statistics about efforts to address childhood obesity. And youíre working with other groups in the industry to meet the goal of doubling the amount of produce used in the food industry over the next 10 years.

And across the country, individual restaurants and chains are also focusing on our childrenís health - not just because itís the right thing to do, but because it also makes sense for their bottom line.

Right now, many restaurants are making a point to offer fresh produce and healthy choices aimed at kids and adults. Others are serving more low-fat dishes, whole grain breads, fruit on the side. Some are even offering kid-size portions of the meals they serve on the main menu. And chefs across the country are partnering with local schools to help them make healthy choices.

But as positive as these examples are, the reality is itís just not enough. Together we have to do more. We have to go further. And we need your help to lead this effort.

Now, what I do know is that in the restaurant industry creativity is your lifeblood. Itís what sets you apart from the competition, and it keeps customers coming back for more. And today I am asking you to use that creativity to rethink the food you offer, especially dishes aimed at young people, and to help us make the healthier choice the easier choice.

First, itís important to reduce the number of empty calories that our families are consuming, calories that have no nutritional benefit whatsoever. And believe me, I know this is easier said than done. After all, we as humans, we are programmed to crave sugary, fatty, salty foods. And as people who work to meet those needs, I know itís tempting to respond by creating products that are sweeter, richer and saltier than ever before.

But hereís the catch. See, feeding those cravings does just respond to peopleís natural desires, it actually helps shape them. The more of these foods people eat, the more they're accustomed to that taste, and after a while, those unhealthy foods become a permanent part of their eating habits.

But hereís the good news: It can work the other way around just as easily. Just as we can shape our childrenís preferences for high-calorie, low-nutrient foods, with a little persistence and creativity we can also turn them on to higher quality, healthier foods.

It starts with offering healthier options designed specifically for kids. And today, no matter what kind of restaurant you visit - whether itís Italian, French, Mexican, American - most kidsí menus look pretty much the same. And trust me, weíve seen a lot of them.

One local survey found that 90 percent of those menus includes mac and cheese - our childrenís favorite; 80 percent includes chicken fingers; 60 includes burgers or cheeseburgers.

Some options weigh in at over 1,000 calories, and thatís close to the recommended amount that a child should have for the entire day. And I think - and I know you all think - that our kids deserve better than that.

Thatís why I want to challenge every restaurant to offer healthy menu options and then provide them up front so that parents donít have to hunt around and read the small print to find an appropriately sized portion that doesnít contain levels - high levels of fat, salt and sugar.

These choices have to be easy to make and they have to give parents the confidence to know that they can go into any restaurant in this country and choose a genuinely healthy meal for their kids.

Now, again, I know itís easier said than done. Itís not easy to come up with choices that are both healthy and palatable for kids. And it may mean putting in some real effort and creativity to make this happen.

But what it doesnít mean is providing just one token healthy option on the menu, or taking out one problematic ingredient and replacing it with another. And it is not about finding creative ways to market unhealthy food products as healthy.

Instead, itís about producing products that actually are healthy; products that can help our children get into the habits that will last them a lifetime.

This philosophy also needs to apply to the rest of the food that you offer, because just as we eat out as a family, we also should be able to eat well as a family.

And as a mother of two soon-to-be teenagers, I know that many kids, especially tweens and teens, eat off the same menu that their parents do.

I'm not asking any of you to make drastic changes to every single one of your recipes or to totally change the way you do business. But what I am asking is that you consider reformulating your menu in pragmatic and incremental ways to create healthier versions of the foods that we all love. That could mean substituting wheat pasta for white pasta in your regular recipes, or taking out an existing - taking an existing dish and cutting the amount of butter or cream - not enough to sacrifice flavor - we all like flavor - but just enough to make a meaningful difference in the amount of calories and fat.

It could mean serving 1 percent or skim milk. Or you could make healthy sides like apple slices or carrots the default choice in a menu and make fries something customers have to request - which would hurt me deeply. (Laughter.) I'm a fry lover.

And no matter what you do, itís also important, truly important, to keep portion sizes in check, because we all know that the size of a meal is just as important as the ingredients itís made of.

But your role in helping address childhood obesity isnít limited to what you put on your menus and how you label them for parents. Itís also about how you market those products to our kids.

Our kids donít learn about the latest fast-food creations on their own. They hear about them on TV, advertisements, in the Internet, video games, and many other places. And as any parent knows, this marketing is highly effective.

As a mom, I know it is my responsibility, and no one elseís, to raise my kids. But we have to ask ourselves, what does it mean when so many parents are finding their best efforts undermined by an avalanche of advertisements aimed at our kids.

A study last year found that only a small percentage of advertising aimed at kids promoted healthy foods, while most promoted foods with a low nutritional value. And letís be clear: Itís not enough just to limit ads for foods that arenít healthy. Itís also going to be critical to increase marketing for foods that are healthy.

And if thereís anyone who can sell healthy food to our kids, itís all of you, because you know what gets their attention. You know what makes a lasting impression. You certainly know what gets them to drive their poor parents crazy because they just have to have something.

So I'm here today to ask you to use that knowledge and that power to our kidsí advantage. I'm asking you to actively promote healthy foods and healthy habits to our kids.

Again, I know many of you have said that you would offer and promote healthy options in a heartbeat if they were as popular as the healthy - unhealthy options, because thatís how business works, and I understand that.

But Iíve yet to meet a single parent who doesnít understand the threat of childhood obesity. Iíve yet to meet a single parent whoís not eager to buy healthier products. They just need more information. They need easier access to those products.

And Iíve heard from more companies over the year that the market is starting to move in a healthier direction. Folks are beginning to ask for more fruits and vegetables and for smaller portions. So when it comes right down to it, this is also about protecting your bottom lines and meeting the demands of your customers - customers who I know you want to keep coming back again and again.

Thatís why weíre committed to helping increase that demand and making it easier for you to do whatís right. And weíve started by requiring chain restaurants to provide calorie counts on their menus and menu boards. And I am grateful for the support weíve received from the NRA to get this done. And I want to encourage restaurants that arenít providing calorie counts to join us in this effort.

And because so many of the calories our kids consume come from school, weíre also working to get more nutritious food into our lunchrooms and our vending machines. And, again, the NRA has been playing an important role in these efforts as well.

As part of ďLetís Move,Ē weíre setting a goal of doubling the number of schools that participate in the Healthier US Schools Challenge by next year. And weíre working with schools and food suppliers to offer more fruits and vegetables and to cut down on that fat, sugar and salt.

And, finally, weíre working with mayors and other local officials to make our cities and towns healthier and to highlight restaurants that agree to serve smaller portions and promote more nutritious options.

So I hope that all of you will join with us in these efforts. Together, we can help make sure that every family that walks into a restaurant can make an easy, healthy choice.

We can make a commitment to promote vegetables and fruits and whole grains on every part of every menu. We can make portion sizes smaller and emphasize quality over quantity. And we can help create a culture - imagine this - where our kids ask for healthy options instead of resisting them.

See, after all, thatís one of the core ideals this industry was founded on. I recently learned that the term ďrestaurantĒ actually comes from the French word for ďrestore.Ē And when the idea of the restaurant business spread across the ocean, some of the first true restaurants in this country emphasized their ability to make people healthier and to cure what ailed them.


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