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Will The Real Hamburglar Please Stand Up?

Is Michelle Obama really more like the Hamburgler in disguise? Or is she simply an American woman who, according to a Washington Post reporter, had a craving for, and subsequently ordered some of her favorite comfort foods—a burger and fries, a chocolate shake, and a diet coke®—at a Shake Shack location in Washington, D.C. this past Monday? Should we even care?

Many seem to care because Mrs. Obama is no simple American woman; she’s the face of Let’s Move!, a comprehensive anti-obesity initiative launched in February, 2010. This national effort aims to create a healthy start for children, empower parents and caregivers, provide healthy food in schools, improve access to healthy, affordable foods, and increase physical activity.

Just after this ‘news story’ went to print, several nutrition experts weighed in with their opinions on ABC news. Many defended (or at the very least, were not outright mortified by) Mrs. Obama’s lunch selection, saying we’re not sure how much she actually ate and that fast food can be an occasional indulgence—not something to have often as many Americans unfortunately tend to do.

Personally, I can understand why some feel that Mrs. Obama’s reported behavior at Shake Shake was shaky–and flies in the face of what she stands for (and what she wants America to stand for) as we wage war against obesity and overweight. After all, doesn’t heavily advertised, highly palatable, high calorie, high fat fast food contribute to overeating and subsequent debilitating health problems like high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes? We Americans know that we eat too much nutrient-poor food and not enough of the healthful foods recommended by MyPlate (which reflects current Dietary Guidelines for Americans). But does judging Mrs. Obama’s food choices and expecting her to eat and live perfectly really help the rest of us get healthy and fit? Wouldn’t that set the healthy eating bar too high for most Americans to achieve?

Lauren Slayton, MS, RD, a New York City-based registered dietitian in private practice, says “Having a burger, fries, a shake, and a soda all at once is not the best example to set when you’re encouraging Americans to be more healthy.” One expert takes a different view. “It’s like we live in the land of scooped out bagels and no fat allowed,” says Rebecca Scritchfield, a Washington, D.C.-based dietitian and the founder of “The Me Movement.” And while we don’t know if Mrs. Obama ate all that she ordered (or if she even ordered it all for herself), Scritchfield points out that “Let’s Move! is about wellness—it’s not about ‘perfect’ food rules.” She adds “All or nothing doesn’t work, and health should not be equated with perfection.”

If you want my two cents, I think we should leave it up to Mrs. Obama herself to decide what and how to eat. Only she knows her usual eating habits and overall health status, and how occasional—or even daily—indulgences fit into her life. Only she can decide the messages (such as moderation and balance) she wants her daughters to learn about making food decisions and living a healthy lifestyle. And if that means fast food on occasion—or even more often (in small portions of course)—so be it.

And what about all of us healthy eating advocates and experts—including myself—should we, too, be subjected to scrutiny about what, how much, when and where we eat? At the moment (knock on wood), I’m in very good health, maintain a very active lifestyle, and have lost and kept off more than 30 pounds for years. Although some foodie friends and health experts may not condone my usuals—a hot dog with catsup and mustard at each Yankee game, bread and butter (or sometimes olive oil) at meals eaten out, or my daily chocolate indulgence (usually peanut M & Ms)—I have no problem being honest about my eating habits. I’m not a food cop and don’t expect others to eat exactly as I do, nor do I claim to be a perfect eater. And just like with Mrs. Obama, I don’t feel that I should be judged for having some of the less-than-healthful foods I have enjoyed since I was a child. (Perhaps those who feel this admission means I should have my registered dietitian license revoked should take it up with my mother.)

I take my own kids to fast food once in a while, much like my parents took me, and both of my boys are (knock on wood, again) healthy, active, and have a pretty healthful diet rich in fruits, veggies, low fat dairy, beans, and whole grains.

I truly hope Mrs. Obama will continue to promote healthy eating, do the best she can to eat healthfully and encourage that in her children, and at the same time not be shamed into eating indulgences only in secret. And as my colleague and friend, registered dietitian Constance Brown-Riggs, often says, life—and food choices—are about progress, not perfection. And to that I’ll take another bite of my own burger!

Your thoughts?

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About The Author

Elisa Zied is a nationally recognized and award-winning health and nutrition expert, author, speaker, and spokesperson. A trusted source of food, nutrition, and health information, Elisa has garnered millions of media impressions, lending her expertise and real-world perspective to dozens of TV shows, web sites, news organizations and magazines. She’s the author of four nutrition books. An avid walker, she loves motivating others to #moveitorloseit. A book lover, she recently earned a certificate in children’s literature from Stony Brook Southampton and is currently working on several young adult novels. You can find her previous Food, Fitness & Fiction posts here and connect with her on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

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