A friend of mine sent me a PDF of an academic paper that will soon be published in the American Economic Journal. The paper, titled Restaurants, Regulation and the Super-sizing of America asks the question: Are restaurants to blame for the rise in obesity? The answer, not surprisingly, is No. Or as the authors wrote in their conclusions:
Our findings indicate that the causal link between the consumption of restaurant foods and obesity is minimal at best.
Restaurants have become a convenient whipping-boy for government busybodies who are driven by the urge to do something! whenever they see a problem. San Francisco banned Happy Meals. Los Angeles banned the opening of new fast-food restaurants on the city’s south side. The health-care “reform” bill will require all restaurants with more than 20 outlets to put calorie counts on menus … never mind the fact that we got fatter after nutrition information was mandated on all packaged foods. Some government goofs in Mississippi even proposed barring people with a BMI of over 30 from eating in restaurants. (I sure wish they’d try that right around the time some big fellas from All-Star Wrestling come to town. The violence would be real for a change.)
The trouble with all of these attempts at leanness-through-legislation (besides the shredding of individual freedom in a supposedly free country) is that there’s no evidence they’ll actually work. If restaurants aren’t the problem, then we’re shooting at the wrong target. If restaurants are the problem, then someone should be able to prove that restaurants induce overeating long-term, as opposed to during a single meal.
To examine the effects of restaurants on over-eating and obesity, the authors of this study compared food-intake and BMI data among rural communities with either a relatively high or relatively low availability of restaurants. The BMI curve for both kinds of communities was virtually identical. Apparently having a bit of fun with math, the authors calculated that for each extra mile to the nearest restaurant, the average BMI decreased by a whopping 0.0013 points.
Well, there you have it. If the government do-gooders could simply require that all restaurants be located at least 3,846 miles from the nearest town, our average BMI would drop by five points and the obesity crisis would be solved … although those “Let’s go to White Castle and get some sliders!” inspirations at three in the morning would require a passport in some states.
Of course, you could argue that distance doesn’t have much to do with how often people eat in restaurants. (In which case, the old adage about “Location, location, location!” doesn’t hold water … or soda.) However, using a series of surveys, the authors calculated that people who live near restaurants do, in fact, eat out more often. In towns located within five miles of a restaurant, residents average 128 daily restaurant visits per 1000 people. In towns located between five and 10 miles from the nearest restaurant, the rate drops by half.
Having a restaurant located within the same town makes an even bigger difference: In towns with at least one fast-food restaurant, residents average 127 daily fast-food meals per 1000 people. In towns without a fast-food restaurant, residents average just 39 daily fast-food meals per 1000 people.
If restaurants are making people obese, then the populations who live near restaurants and therefore eat in restaurants more frequently should be fatter. But they’re not. As I pointed out when the Los Angeles city council banned new fast-food restaurants on the south side — a poor area with a high rate of obesity — it apparently didn’t occur to the do-gooders to check out other areas of the city. If they had, they would’ve found that there are more fast-food restaurants per square mile on the oh-so-stylish west side. Since the rate of obesity is also much lower there, nobody dared suggest all those burger and taco joints might be making people fat.
The do-gooders blame restaurants for obesity because of a simple observation: restaurant meals are usually bigger than the meals we eat at home. Duh … that’s one of the reasons I eat in restaurants. I’m not going to dress up, stand by the door tapping my foot while my wife finishes dressing and applying makeup, pay a baby-sitter $30, drive several miles, park, give the hostess my name, take a little buzzy-blinking-light thing from her, stand outside and wait for it to blink and buzz, then finally take a seat at a table … all for the sheer joy of eating a small piece of steamed fish and a salad with lemon juice. When I go out, I eat a big meal.
But then I do the same thing that most people do, according to the study’s authors: I eat less later. I don’t eat less later because I’m disciplined; I eat less because my body tells me it really doesn’t care for another big meal right now, thank you very much. Now, that may be partly because when I eat in a restaurant, I don’t stuff myself with sugar and starch. But I don’t stuff myself with sugar and starch at home, either. By the same token, people who go carb-crazy in restaurants probably go carb-crazy at home too.
The point is, our appetites are controlled by our metabolisms, not by McDonald’s. The authors found that within individual communities, people who eat frequently in restaurants do, in fact, consume more daily calories on average and are fatter on average. But they don’t have big appetites because they eat at restaurants more often; they eat at restaurants more often because they have big appetites.
When the authors looked at data on how many calories individuals consume day-to-day, they found almost no difference between the days that included a restaurant meal and the days that didn’t — just 35 extra calories on days that included a restaurant meal, whether we’re talking about fat people or thin people. In other words, yes, when there are restaurants nearby, the obese are more likely to eat in those restaurants and stuff themselves — but take away the restaurants, and they just stuff themselves at home:
When eating at home, obese individuals consume almost 30 percent of their calories in the form of “junk food” (ice cream, processed cheese, bacon, baked sweets, crackers, potato chips and fries, candies, soft drinks, and beer). Because obese individuals consume so many calories from nutritionally deficient sources at home, it may not be surprising that replacing restaurant consumption with home consumption does not improve health, as measured by BMI.
(Take the word “bacon” out of that paragraph, and it would be perfect.)
So as usual, the government do-gooders (not to mention Morgan Spurlock) have the cause and effect backwards. We didn’t develop perverted appetites because of super-sized restaurant meals. Our appetites were perverted first, and then super-sized meals came along to match them. Order the restaurants to serve lower-calorie meals — as some government goofs in the U.K. proposed — and the fat people will just go home afterwards and open the pint of Chunky Monkey.
Picking on the restaurants is a waste of time and effort. The do-gooders can pass every law their little fascist hearts desire, and it won’t solve the obesity problem. There’s just no evidence that restaurants are the cause — not that I’d expect the do-gooders to care one way or another. As the study authors noted:
Many policymakers and public-health advocates design policies intended to reduce the impact of restaurants on obesity, even while they acknowledge that convincing evidence of such a link has proven to be elusive. For example, the Food and Drug Administration recently organized a forum in which participants proposed solutions to the challenge of obesity in the context of away-from-home foods, even while the organizers cautioned that “there does not exist a conclusive body of evidence establishing a causal link between the availability or consumption of away-from-home foods and obesity.”
Anyone want to bet me that the lack of a “conclusive body of evidence” will convince those public-health advocates to stop proposing stupid laws to save us from ourselves?
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