WASHINGTON — Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a possible Republican contender for the White House in 2008, didn't touch dessert during lunch at the National Press Club on Friday.
Having lost 110 pounds in the past two years, Huckabee skips dessert often. Now he and the National Governors Association, which he chairs, are encouraging all Americans to do the same.
Kicking off the association's yearlong effort to make America healthier, Huckabee on Friday warned that 600,000 Americans die each year because of obesity-related health problems. He said obesity is a crisis of epidemic proportions that is costing states a fortune in increased health-care costs and that governors around the country are prepared and eager to change the nation's eating and exercise habits.
"Now, think about that for a minute: 600,000 people in this country die because they don't get enough exercise, and they get too much food," Huckabee said. "Clearly, there's a disconnect somewhere between what we know we ought to do and what we do."
The National Governors Association's plan, "Healthy America: Wellness where we live, work and learn," has the support of every governor in the country, Huckabee said. The Healthy America Task Force includes Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, a former body-building champ, and Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack of Iowa.
The association's plan includes:Raising national awareness of America's need to get healthier.
Exploring opportunities to improve state programs, including Medicaid, food stamps and child care, to make sure healthy behavior is promoted and rewarded.
Urging every governor to implement state employee health initiatives as models for the public.
Huckabee launched his Healthy Arkansas Initiative in 2003, aimed at improving health statewide. The state's Web site says Arkansas is one of the least healthy states in the country, ranked by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as first in deaths due to stroke and eighth in heart disease mortality.
The state reports that it saw a 77 percent increase in obesity between 1991 and 2000.
But before attempting to combat the Arkansas weight problem, Huckabee had to conquer his own.
In 2003, after being diagnosed with diabetes, Huckabee enrolled in a weight loss program. After a year of dieting and exercise, Huckabee had dropped more than 100 pounds.
Regardless of his personal success, getting Arkansas residents' weight in check has proved difficult.
Despite Huckabee's effort to get the states' young people to lose weight and a state law that requires students in public school to be screened for obesity, numbers released Thursday show that 38 percent of children remain overweight or at risk of becoming overweight.
Amy Rossi, associate director for the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement, said officials are optimistic about their state's numbers because while other states' obesity rates were increasing, Arkansas' rates held steady.
Data that show "that our children are not getting worse, is, at least momentarily, promising," Rossi said.
In Arkansas, and the South in general, fried foods are consumed in vast quantities because they are cheap and poverty levels are high, Huckabee said.
Growing up in the South, Huckabee said, anything tasted good if it could "first be battered and fried."
Huckabee said changing America's bad eating habits will take a generation.
But the nation has changed its habits before, Huckabee said. Americans stopped littering and started wearing seat belts, two things that would have been largely unimaginable in the 1960s, he said.
Huckabee also said politicians can't win an election running on an obesity platform.
"If any person thinks that his or her political career is going to be established on the idea of a Healthy America initiative or launch, I got to tell you, it probably won't because we're not going to have the kind of demonstrable, measurable results in a single election cycle," he said.
When asked if he was planning on running for the White House in 2008, Huckabee replied, "Right now the only thing I am running for is a marathon I am working on."
But he said he is keeping all options open.