With more than a third of our children now overweight and many already diabetic, Americans of all political colors should commend the First Lady for her recently-announced campaign against childhood obesity. But taking on such an enormous problem is going to require a lot more than praise. And it will require more than heart-healthy choices, limited TV, and "opportunities for exercise" -- buzzwords that public health experts have been tossing around for years with no apparent effect.
This will require something very old-fashioned and very unpopular: self-discipline and self-control.
There are many factors which contribute to our current epidemic of obesity: the near-elimination of physical labor by technology; the disappearance of playgrounds and neighborhood ballgames; too few miles walked, and far too many driven. All of these things add up to a soft, comfortable life, which is hazardous to our health. One rather obvious fact seems to be repeatedly ignored: we Americans simply eat way too much food, while millions of other people are starving.
We eat not only once or twice a day, but three or four times a day. And despite what we may think or say, we adults are very bad examples. And so as noble as our intentions to help children may be, they will continue to fail if we do not recognize that we ourselves are the problem. If we want our children to change, then we have to start with ourselves, and start to eliminate our bad eating habits.
I have recognized these bad habits in my own life, and have decided -- along with other friends -- to change them. This starts with daily exercise. Also, since the recent tragedy in Haiti, we have decided to only eat two meals a day, and quite often skip dinner as well. With the money we've saved, we are sending checks to local people who are involved in grass-roots relief efforts: a local obstetrician who is traveling to Haiti this spring, or a couple who support four orphanages.
There is much more we can all do, simply by saying "no" to some of the many pleasures that we take for granted. Then we can give away the money we've saved to people who are suffering. Many little steps can make a big difference.
School districts should keep on ripping out vending machines and buying fresh local produce instead of processed foods. But these efforts must be accompanied by a serious debate about the role of personal responsibility. Let's talk not only about calories and diets and exercise regimens, but about self-discipline, self-control, and self-denial. And then we need to turn that talk into action, starting with ourselves.
When we start with ourselves, our children will catch on very fast. We will be surprised how happily they will follow our example.
Johann Christoph Arnold is the author of ten books, which are available as free e-books at www.plough.com.