Unsolved Mysteries: How Can The Obamas Eat Burgers, Still Be Healthy?

NY Times Op-Ed columnist Maureen Dowd and others in the media are all abuzz over the Obamas' mysterious and possibly subversive decision to eat both burgers and healthy foods.

According to Dowd, Barack employs a trainer, preached the importance of breakfast to the black community, and once, at a fancy restaurant, ate just one french fry. Michelle, meanwhile, invited kids yesterday to the White House vegetable garden, and helped them prepare their own baked (not fried) chicken. Yet both Obamas have been spotted at burger joint Five Guys, where evil grease soaks through the bag and into the arteries. What gives?

To her credit, Dowd recognizes that Obama may be "treat[ing] himself to fries and burgers to beef up his average-Joe image." And nutrition professor Parke Wilde tells Politico's Erika Lovely, "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. You can't refuse to participate in the way most people eat." Clearly, as with Michelle's cooking efforts (or non-efforts), the challenge is to set an example for Americans without alienating them.

But is this really so hard? White House chef Sam Kass says, "We try not to do diets, as opposed to just change our lifestyle. A diet means you're inherently going to fall off of it." And Lovely writes,

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.

A balanced lifestyle — which, for the Obamas includes exercise, vegetables, and the occasional burger or cheese platter — doesn't have to be elusive. The reason it seems so may have to do with the false dichotomy people tend to set up between healthy and unhealthy behavior. Lovely quotes one culprit, anti-obesity activist MeMe Roth, who views sundae toppings the way most moms the crystal meth (while she's on good behavior here, saying merely that Obama "has to come across as health conscious, not a foodie," she once compared eating junk food to rape). Maureen Dowd comes off as an absolutist too, writing, "the president should forgo the photo-op of the grease-stained bovine bag and take the TV stars out for what he really wants and America really needs: some steamed fish with a side of snap peas." And on the other side, we have people like Jeffrey Stier of the American Council on Science and Health, who says that if the government keep promoting organic, local food with their vegetable garden,

People are going to eat fewer fruits and vegetables. Cancer rates will go up. Obesity rates will go up. I think if we decide to eat only locally grown food, we're going to have a lot of starvation.

As people and as a nation, we're caught between those who say that any deviation from steamed fish is going to give us a heart attack, and opponents who argue that healthy food is elitist and we'd better stick with a steady diet of donuts and pesticides unless we want to die of starvobesity. But what the Obamas demonstrate is that it really isn't a contradiction to eat baked chicken and cheeseburgers, and that occasional grease can be part of a healthy diet. It's smart that the Obamas don't make burgers into Roth-style forbidden foods — this demonizing attitude might just make Sasha and Malia crave them more. And while the Obamas can afford whatever organic food they want, and a trainer to keep them fit, it's also true that a vegetable garden like Michelle's could be a money saver for people with the space and time to grow one. The recession, says Gardener's Supply Co., has caused a spike in interest in home gardening. Obviously not everyone can plant a garden, and not everyone can eat like the Obamas. But their "balanced lifestyle" is a lot more attainable than people like Stier would have us believe — and a lot healthier than Dowd implies.

Hold the Fries [New York Times]
President Obama's Diet: Fitness And French Fries [Politico]
Industry Is Critical Of Michelle Obama's Organic Garden [Politico]

Earlier: Should Michelle Obama Get Back In The Kitchen?
Michelle Obama's Garden Continues To Sprout Criticism