HEALTH

Michelle Obama appears at Hyattsville Olive Garden to tout healthy eating

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WASHINGTON (AP) - Calorie by calorie, first lady Michelle Obama is chipping away at big portions and unhealthy food in an effort to help America slim down.

(Photo: Associated Press)

In the two and a half years since she announced her campaign to curb childhood obesity, Mrs. Obama has stood alongside Wal-Mart, Olive Garden and many other food companies as they have announced improvements to their recipes - fewer calories, less sodium, better children's menus.

The changes are small steps, in most cases. Fried foods and french fries will still be on the menu, though enticing pictures of those foods may be gone. High-sodium soups, which many consumers prefer, will still be on the grocery aisle. But the amount of sodium in each can will gradually decrease in some cases, and the taste of their low-sodium variety will be improved.

On Thursday, the first lady joined Darden Restaurants Inc. executives at one of their Olive Garden restaurants in Hyattsville, Md., near Washington to announce that the company's chains are pledging to cut calories and sodium in their meals by 20 percent over a decade. Fruit or vegetable side dishes and low-fat milk will become standard with kids' meals unless a substitution is requested.

Mrs. Obama said Darden's announcement is a "breakthrough moment" for the industry. The company owns 1,900 restaurants in 49 states, including Olive Garden, Red Lobster, LongHorn Steakhouse, The Capital Grille, Bahama Breeze and Seasons 52.

"I believe the changes that Darden will make could impact the health and well-being of an entire generation of young people," the first lady said.

McDonald's, Burger King and more than a dozen other restaurants have also said this summer that they will revamp childrens' menus. Changing recipes and menu items is good business for the industry because consumers want wider choices - chefs and food manufacturers say consumers are demanding more healthy food than ever before.

Nutrition advocates and food industry representatives say that the first lady embraced the issue just as consumers began to demand healthier foods and advocates were making headway in getting industry to make foods healthier. They say she has been a key catalyst in getting lawmakers and companies to jump on board.

"There's been more progress on nutrition in the last several years than in the whole previous decade," says Margo Wootan, a leading nutrition advocate and lobbyist with the Center for Science in the Public Interest who has been working on the issue for almost 20 years. "There is a lot of momentum in addressing obesity right now and the first lady adds significant momentum to that movement."

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