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Sunday, September 10, 2006
DROPS 100 LBS.: The Slenderized Governor From Arkansas, With Advice to Share...
September 10, 2006
The Slenderized Governor, With Advice to Share
By SHAILA DEWAN
LITTLE ROCK, Ark., Sept. 8 — Mike Huckabee has been the governor of Arkansas for a decade, but he is most famous for what he has done in the last three years: lose more than 100 pounds and encourage other Arkansans to follow his example.
As he contemplates a bid for the Republican nomination for president in 2008, the slenderized governor has inspired a host of imitators, including Gov. Sonny Perdue of Georgia, who shed 33 pounds, and Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi, who promised in June to go on a diet. These and other Southern politicians say they are trying to set an example for their constituents, who exhibit the highest rates of obesity in the country.
But for those who would join the health crusade, Mr. Huckabee’s tale includes a cautionary thread. In the South, the fight against obesity is essentially a culture war. And while the campaign may have raised Mr. Huckabee’s national profile, not everyone here appreciates a governor whose policies include weighing schoolchildren and sending home report cards on their body mass index.
Mr. Huckabee, a teetotaler who now rises before dawn to jog five miles, has been accused of nagging the populace, banning birthday cakes in schools (not true, he says) and trampling the personal freedoms of smokers with an indoor smoking ban. While he says he uses the carrot, not the stick, to encourage better health, his virtue alone has a way of making people like Pearletha David, the owner of David Family Kitchen, a soul food restaurant here, feel henpecked.
“I think it’s fine for him,” Ms. David said, putting her hands on her hips. “But he ain’t got to make the whole state lose weight.”
After the governor’s nutritional guidelines for school lunches took effect, one girl wrote a letter to him demanding “real food” like nachos and pizza. A columnist for The Baxter Bulletin imagined a future of diners picking at their “sautéed soybeans with flavor-free dressing” and discussing the criminalization of cheese curls.
Despite the efforts, the state’s obesity rate among adults has actually increased since last year, according to the Trust for America’s Health.
Mr. Huckabee counters that changing dietary habits is a long-term, generational project, and says that in three years of recording children’s body mass index and reporting it to parents, the number of children at risk of obesity has decreased — by half of 1 percent.
Mr. Huckabee knows what he is up against, namely all-you-can-eat buffets, cheese grits and a local ice cream flavor called Woo Pig Chewy. One of his own family dogs is named Sonic, after the fast-food chain whose cherry limeades are favored by his wife, Janet.
“It’s not just your culture,” he said, speaking in his office in the Capitol building. “It’s your comfort.”
But Mr. Huckabee insists that a lifestyle revolution can happen, citing four behaviors that have been reshaped over the years by concerted government effort: littering, seatbelt use, smoking and drunken driving.
“In each of those cases, in my lifetime, I have seen the needle move from one side to the other,” he said. “People used to throw entire sacks of trash out of their cars without thinking it was inappropriate.”
Mr. Huckabee’s health obsession began in 2003, when he received a diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes, which can sometimes be controlled by diet and exercise. At the time, he weighed close to 300 pounds.
With the help of doctors at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, the governor went on a strict diet and began to exercise, shedding weight so rapidly that it was as if he simply unzipped a fat suit and stepped out. He wrote a book called “Quit Digging Your Grave With a Knife and Fork.” In March 2005, he ran the Little Rock marathon in 3 hours 38 minutes.
But Mr. Huckabee’s change of eating habits has put him in another sort of bubble. He no longer eats at banquets and receptions. He keeps a cooler of food in his car. On a recent day, an acquaintance started to offer him a slice of homemade cheesecake, then stopped herself. “I’d give it to you, but then I’d be digging your grave with a fork and a plastic knife,” she said.
The governor insists he does not want to create a “nanny state” or a “grease police.” Many of his policies include incentives like exercise breaks for state employees. He has expanded state insurance coverage to cover obesity treatment. He advocated restricting access to vending machines for high school students and replacing the sugary sodas in them with juice and water.
Arkansas is one of a handful of states where the nutritional guidelines for school lunches are stricter than the federal requirements.
But some critics say Mr. Huckabee’s crusade has more rhetoric than substance. Part of his Healthy Arkansas initiative is to give a seal of approval to restaurants that offer healthful alternatives and nutritional information, but critics point out that the list of 106 restaurants includes a Burger King, a Pizza Hut and 52 McDonald’s.
The policy that has brought the most attention to the governor, however, was not his initiative. In the spring of 2003, Herschel W. Cleveland, then the Arkansas House speaker, introduced a bill to remove vending machines from elementary schools and send home the body mass index report cards.
The bill passed easily, but the public generally did not notice until Mr. Huckabee had become the health governor. The news made national headlines and brought vehement objections from parents concerned about government intrusion and fragile young egos, recalled the sponsor, State Representative Jay Bradford, a Democrat, who spoke by telephone from his office in Pine Bluff. “I’m also thin, by the way,” Mr. Bradford added.
For those who would change Southern eating habits, though, there is always the problem of tradition and identity. And though Mr. Huckabee is not naïve, his strategy for tackling the issue is optimistic. “There’s much more to celebrate in a person’s health than there is about just what they eat,” he said.
Comment: he is right about that.
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