ESTHER CEPEDA: Special meals aren’t the culprit in obesity woes

By Esther Cepeda

CHICAGO – If anyone needed proof that America should heed the advice from the Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services to “eat less,” one could only look to Super Bowl Sunday.
I’m not talking about the 1 billion chicken wings, 28 million pounds of potato chips, or the 53.5 million pounds of avocados to make guacamole that, according to the food industry, omnivorous Super Bowl party fans consumed during the big game.
No, I mean the snarky, tasteless posts to Facebook, Twitter, blogs and news story comment boards that erupted once the White House released the menu for President Obama’s Super Bowl party.
The spread promised to be heart-stopping: bratwurst, kielbasa, cheeseburgers, deep dish pizza, Buffalo wings, German potato salad, twice-baked potatoes, Snyder’s potato chips and pretzels, chips and dips, salad, and ice cream. There were beers from Wisconsin and Pennsylvania to round out the meal.
As soon as this menu got around, the tongues started wagging. Here’s a taste: “Fat lady of the US is having a high cal, high fat, super, super high sodium diet.” “Judging from Obama’s SB menu Mechelle is going shopping for bigger pants tomorrow.” “Do as I say and not as I do.” “Menu for Obama’s WH Super Bowl party not very ‘Lets Move’ friendly.”
Michelle Obama has made it her business to promote healthy eating and daily exercise through her various official initiatives. And I don’t recall her ever suggesting that anyone deny themselves celebration food on special occasions.
But like so many messages that fall on deaf ears, the one that the first lady and the 2010 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee are trying to communicate has been lost in transmission.
To be accurate, the guidelines are not something to glaze the eyes with percentages of bad-for-you foods that must be calculated perfectly to add up to good nutrition. There are a mere two main points: Maintain calorie balance, along with exercise, over time to achieve and sustain a healthy weight. And limit the intake of sodium, solid fats, added sugars and refined grains while boosting nutrient-dense foods and beverages.
Nowhere does it say that you shouldn’t enjoy a Super Bowl spread – or a Thanksgiving, Fourth of July or birthday feast for that matter – as a treat in a balanced, day-to-day diet. You just can’t eat like every day is a holiday.
About one-third of all adults in the U.S. are obese but not because of special-occasion eating. It’s because of the 350-or-so other days when people eat either with complete abandon or with an unsettling misunderstanding about the disconnect between the amount of calories they consume versus how many their bodies actually need.
Sure, some people got their giggles on by taking a cheap shot at the first lady’s special occasion menu, but the mean comments just illuminate how misguided we are about the key to eating for a long, healthy life.

Esther Cepeda writes for The Washington Post. Contact her at esther.cepeda@washpost.com.