In a country where fast food reigns and video games trump family dinnertime, it often seems there’s no stopping Americans’ waistlines. More than one-third of U.S. adults are obese, and nearly 32 percent of children ages two to 19 are considered overweight or obese. Sadly enough, massive portions, increased snacking, and dependability on convenient, processed foods have all been attributed to an unhealthy population  .
Amongst all the junk food commercials and donut sandwiches, there are a handful of health heroes. These aren’t just people who eat organic greens for lunch and free-range eggs for dinner; they’re moving and shaking the way we think about our food, including where it comes from, the implications it has on our environment, and what our meals mean for our bodies. Here, we recognize 15 superstars (in no particular order) that have devoted themselves to improving American’s relationship with food.
1. Marion Nestle
Nestle has got her hand in nearly every facet of America’s food industry. Her blog, Food Politics, covers topics from nutrition and biology to health policy and food marketing. She’s been teaching nutrition for nearly four decades and currently teaches sociology, food studies, and public health at NYU. Nestle is the author of many books, but her latest — “Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics” — is all about understanding the intersection of health and food amidst all the mass marketing and misinformation put forth by major food manufacturers. Currently, Nestle updates her blog regularly and presents at universities and conferences on topics such as genetically modified foods and the role food companies play in our food system. (Photo: www.foodpolitics.com)
2. Michael Pollan
As one of the foremost activists for change in the overwrought food industry, Pollan is an outspoken and often controversial figure in the food and farming space. Though probably best known for his book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” (which hung out on The New York Times Bestseller list for more than three years), Pollan has continued to write. In his most recent book, “Cooked”, Pollan explores how cooking connects us to plants, animals, farmers, and culture (amongst other things). (Photo by Ken Light)
3. Michelle Obama
After launching the Let’s Move! campaign at the start of 2010, the First Lady has made healthifying America’s eating habits (especially for kids) her job. The ultimate goal is to eliminate childhood obesity and help kids live healthier lives with good food and a little extra physical activity. This year, Obama held the second annual “Healthy Lunchtime Challenge,” where she asked children ages eight to 12 to whip up nutritious, tasty, and affordable recipes. Unfortunately, we weren’t invited to the White House kids’ “State Dinner” with the winner of this year’s challenge. (Photo: www.whitehouse.gov)
4. Mark BittmanAs an author and New York Times writer, Bittman likes to weigh in on what’s wrong with the American diet. A part-time vegan himself, Bittman is an advocate for the “flexitarian” diet — which means eating vegan during the day, but allowing for more flexible consumption after 6 pm. His super popular book, “How to Cook Everything”, is a go-to resource for basic kitchen skills. Not only does he push for humans to stay healthy, Bittman relentlessly encourages us to keep the environment happy and healthy, too. Oh, and in his spare time, he runs marathons. (Photo: www.markbittman.com)
5. Mike BloombergAs the mayor of New York City, Bloomberg takes his role seriously, making waves in the name of public health. From smoking bans to soda bans, Bloomberg’s initiatives aren’t without controversy and backlash. Passionate about combating obesity, he’s pushed for salad bars and healthier menus in school cafeterias. Plus, he’s managed to eliminate trans fats from tons of restaurant items, and make it mandatory for chain restaurants to clearly post calorie counts on menus. We’re excited to see what goals Bloomberg sets (and reaches) next. (Photo: www.nyc.gov)
6. Ann CooperMost people know her as the Renegade Lunch Lady, but you can call her Chef Ann. Cooper’s mission? To change the way kids eat. By helping schools budget for healthy items and make them a priority, American kiddos (and legislation) are embracing whole foods. After doing her chef thing for over 30 years, Cooper founded the Food Family Farming Foundation — a nonprofit organization created to focus on solving the school lunch crisis. It’s safe to say lunch is Cooper’s favorite meal. (Photo by Kristen Boyer)
7. Joel SalatinAs the face of Polyface Farms, Salatin knows a thing or two about real food. The family-owned, pastured, organic farm works to heal the land and the people who eat its food. Considered one of the most influential farmers in the country, Salatin raises cruelty free livestock (the animals roam free and graze in large pastures free of chemical fertilizers), which drew the attention of the team behind the documentary “Food, Inc.” and fellow crusader Michael Pollan for his book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” (Photo: www.polyfacefarms.com)
8. Jamie OliverDespite getting a lot of flack for his brash attitude (and what some argue are questionable motives), Oliver is one of the most recognizable names and faces on this list. In the UK (where he was born and raised) Oliver’s school lunch campaign led the British government to designate more than one billion dollars to improving the school food systems and also to ban processed junk foods in all UK schools. Oliver brought his rallying powers to the States with Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution — a campaign devoted to saving America’s health by making a few small changes at a time. In his own ABC reality show a few years back, Oliver and his team revamped school cafeterias and improved kids lunches in numerous communities across the country. Since then, Oliver has declared May 17 as Food Revolution Day — a celebration of cooking, chowing down, and the overall importance of healthy food. (Photo: www.jamieoliver.com)
9. Bryant TerryKnown as an “eco-chef” for his focus on sustainability and food justice, Terry bridges cooking, farming, and community health. He also hosts Urban Organic, a web series centered on growing, harvesting, and eating local food. Terry urges all walks of life to believe they have the right to real food and that soul food can be healthy too. Though he’s one of the youngest crusaders on our list, Terry has already made strides in America’s food system working to eliminate many of the food deserts across the country. (Photo: www.bryant-terry.com)
10. Sam KassThis dude helps feed the president (how cool is that?). But beyond cooking for the First Family as an assistant chef at the White House, Kass works with Michelle Obama as the Executive Director of Let’s Move! — a campaign focused on combating childhood obesity. And as the Senior Policy Advisor on Nutrition in the Obama White House, Kass helped create the first major veggie garden at the White House since Eleanor Roosevelt’s Victory Garden. This year, Kass hosted The Great American School Lunch Challenge — which tested celebrity chefs’ healthy-school-lunch-making skills. (Photo: www.whitehouse.gov)
11. John La PumaThis doc practices medicine, but he doesn’t just put band-aids on people’s ailments. La Puma pushes for preventative medicine with a focus on diet, fitness, stress-reduction, and leading an overall healthy lifestyle. He cofounded ChefMD, a healthy recipe video website, and frequently posts on his blog, Paging Dr. La Puma. What’s one of the coolest items on La Puma’s track record? He’s the first physician to teach a cooking and nutrition course in a US medical school. (Photo: www.facebook.com/drjohnlapuma)
12. Robb WolfOne of the world's most well-known advocates for Paleo, Wolf has taught us eating like a caveman can be healthy, practical, and fun. He’s a New York Times best-selling author of “The Paleo Solution” and creator of the blog by the same name. This year, the former research biochemist and California state powerlifting champion released his “Paleo Dining Out Guide” full of simple tips and tricks to eating whole, unprocessed foods on-the-go. (Photo: www.facebook.com/robbwolfonline)
13. Sean CroxtonAfter working as a personal trainer, Croxton wasn’t thrilled with his client’s results. In fact, many of his clients weren’t progressing at all. He dove into the health and fitness space and studied how to uncover the root cause of people’s health challenges. As the founder of Underground Wellness, Croxton takes a holistic, functional approach to health and makes it his mission to educate clients — not just “fix” them. Now, Croxton consults clients all over the world with a wide lens on each person’s entire lifestyle choices — not just food, not just fitness. (Photo: www.foodandfarmconference.com)
14. Lisa LeakeYou may not have heard of Leake before. She doesn’t have her own talk show, she’s not a celebrity chef, and she’s definitely not a politician. Leake runs 100 Days of Real Food, a website and initiative devoted to cutting all processed foods from your diet with guides to help readers follow along. Not up for cutting everything just yet? That’s no problem. Leake also promotes smaller stepping-stones like a 10-day real food pledge. Earlier this year, Leake was in the news for taking on Kraft with an online petition asking them to remove potentially harmful yellow dyes from its mac ‘n cheese. By revamping her family’s eating habits one step at a time (and blogging about it all the while), Leake has inspired her many fans to make small changes in the name of a pretty massive goal. (Photo: www.100daysofrealfood.com)
15. Michael MuddUnfortunately, many big wigs working for food companies put a priority on money over health, sustainability, and ethics. This guy, who once profited off mac ‘n cheese, decided to shake and bake the industry. Mudd was once the Vice President of Global Corporate Affairs at Kraft Foods, but he retired nearly a decade ago after majorly disagreeing with the company’s business model — they put profit over public health. Since then, Mudd has forged a battle against obesity and the companies that may contribute to it. His mission is to actively communicate with consumers about their food choices through clearer labeling and campaigns to inspire better eating. (Photo: www.tasteofkraftfoods.blogspot.com)
Wondering how this year's list stacks up against the last? Check out Top 15 Crusaders for Health in the Food Industry 2012.
Anyone you think is missing from this list? Let us know in the comment section below or tweet the author @nicmcdermott.