- - Monday, July 30, 2012

President Obama is racking up the campaign trail calories. In recent weeks, he has been seen chowing down on hot dogs and buying chili dogs, all within full sight of the cameras. But even as he tries to portray himself as America’s everyman with his food choices, what kind of example is the executive in chief setting for a country where about 143,000 cases of colorectal cancer are diagnosed every year?

As a physician, I believe our political leaders have a responsibility to fight the ballooning U.S. health crisis, not just through campaigns and programs targeting diseases such as cancer but by setting examples themselves.

Colorectal cancer is a largely preventable cancer, but those who eat processed meats such as hot dogs, bacon and pepperoni have a much higher risk of contracting it. Each year, 53,000 Americans die of this disease.

Earlier this year, the nonprofit organization I work for, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, asked the White House to issue an executive order banning staged photo-ops that show the president, first family, vice president and members of the president’s Cabinet eating unhealthy foods such as hot dogs because they are so closely linked to colorectal cancer.

Since taking office, Mr. Obama has posed for the cameras eating a hot dog at a basketball game with British Prime Minister David Cameron, eating cheeseburgers with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and stopping at a D.C. burger restaurant to share a cheeseburger with a reporter, among other instances. On the campaign trail, these junk food photo-ops have become even more frequent.

In all fairness, Mr. Obama is not the first president to eat junk food in public in an attempt to look like one of the guys. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan also have been caught on camera eating unhealthy foods. Widely publicized photographs of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt eating a hot dog are credited with popularizing what once used to be a disliked food. Almost every political candidate is guilty of setting up events with catchy titles such as “Burgers with Bob” in an effort to woo voters.

But it doesn’t take a physician to recognize that junk food is unhealthy. Several researchers have confirmed the link between processed meats such as hot dogs and colorectal cancer. A recent study from the Harvard School of Public Health found that daily consumption of processed meats increases the risk of premature death by 20 percent. In addition, foods such as hot dogs and cheeseburgers are full of saturated fat and cholesterol, which can lead to heart disease, the No. 1 killer of men and women in the United States.

As the summer wears on, we likely can expect yet another photo of the president chowing down on a hot dog. Instead of trying to seem like an average American, I’d like to see the president use his power as a leader to set a healthy example with foods such as grilled vegetables or a veggie dog.

A role model to the nation he leads, the trim and fit Mr. Obama has the power to seriously impact America’s obesity epidemic by simply being photographed eating the healthy foods he is likely eating behind closed doors.

Dr. Ulka Agarwal is chief medical officer and director of clinical research for the nonprofit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.