In Defense of the Junk Food Photo-Op

Photos of President Obama tucking into a burger sends the wrong health message to Americans, a doctors' group says. Should politicians give up junk food on the campaign trail?

Carlos Barria/Reuters

By the time Newt Gingrich dropped out of the Republican primary earlier this month, it was clear that he'd gained a few pounds since launching his White House bid. Campaigning is hard -- the grueling hours, constant travel and frequent stops with little time for more than a doughnut or a burger quickly take their toll. For months on end, candidates suck down incredible quantities of sugar, salt, and fat like it's their job -- which, of course, it is. So many campaign appearances revolve around food that it's hard to imagine an election season without prayer breakfasts, fundraiser barbecues, or drop-ins at the local pizza joint.

Which is why it's remarkable that a group of doctors and activists have banded together to demand that President Obama forgo future photo-ops involving junk food. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) began circulating a petition yesterday in hopes that First Lady Michelle Obama's edicts on good nutrition will extend to the campaign trail. As a role model for Americans, the president can help stem the tide of unhealthy eating that threatens to make two-fifths of us obese by 2030 -- or so the logic goes.

"The White House would never set up a photo-op showing the president buying cigarettes," said PCRM nutrition education director Susan Levin. "So why is it okay to show him eating a hot dog?"

It's probably safe to say Obama's public diet hinges on more than the performance of a single petition. But even if the president agreed to eat nothing but kale for the next six months, how much would that accomplish?

Ditching the hot dogs and the ice cream at campaign stops might get some people's attention. But let's face it -- Americans don't elect presidents to tell them how to eat. They elect them to make decisions about peace and war, about commerce and regulation, about diplomacy. For many Americans, Obama's credibility on diet is pretty weak.

In a 2007 survey, Gallup respondents overwhelmingly demonstrated that they knew the health risks of excessive weight. Ninety-eight percent of Americans said they believe obesity poses a "harmful" or "very harmful" threat to those who are already overweight. And yet, even as our waistlines have increased over time, we still believe that whatever we weigh, it's just the right amount.

What America needs isn't more awareness-building; what it needs is to make being healthy incredibly easy, and being unhealthy more costly by comparison. Until now, such campaigns have taken the form of information distribution. Spread the facts about nutrition far and wide, and everyone will simply make better, more rational choices about their lifestyles.

Beyond the fact that not everyone can afford to choose the healthier options in the supermarket -- again, a reflection of the cheapness of mass-produced food -- research repeatedly shows that our decisions are motivated by more than reason. Willpower is not an inexhaustible resource:

Most of us assume that self-control is largely a character issue, and that we would follow through on our New Year's resolutions if only we had a bit more discipline. But this research suggests that willpower itself is inherently limited, and that our January promises fail in large part because the brain wasn't built for success.

If that research is correct, photos of Obama snacking on hummus and carrot sticks won't simply be ineffective in the war against obesity; it'll be ineffective while opening him up to more accusations of elitism and hoity-toity judgment, which will only serve to undermine the point of the healthier photo-ops in the first place.