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Fewer Fast Food Outlets Does Not Mean Thinner People

Evidence points to a failed attempt at social engineering.

The obesity rate has risen enormously over the past 50 years, even as the fast food chain restaurant has become ubiquitous. Reasonably enough, many people have suggested there is a link between these two trends, and some research has backed up the idea.

Based on the hope that limiting access to grease-intensive eateries would encourage diners to choose healthier alternatives, many municipalities used tax codes or zoning ordinances to restrict their proliferation. The hope was that residents deprived of their fast food fix would opt instead for a healthier meal.

So is this attempt at social engineering effective? A law that banned new fast food restaurants in some Los Angeles neighborhoods was clearly not: A 2015 Rand Corporation study found that, over a five-year period, obesity in areas covered by the law actually rose faster than the overall city rate.

Now a new, larger study also suggests the idea is a dud—at least if its goal is a thinner populace.

"Our results suggest blocking the opening of a new fast-food restaurant, or subsidizing a local supermarket, will do little to reduce obesity," Indiana University researcher Coady Wing said in announcing the results.

Golden delicious apples can't compete with the golden arches.

"Strategies like healthy food financing initiatives in some cities could have benefits, for example reducing the saturation of unhealthy food sources in impoverished neighborhoods," he added. "But these policies alone aren't likely to lead" to a decrease in the percentage of the population that is obese.

The researchers, led by Shannon Zenk of the University of Illinois–Chicago, used data from the Weight and Veterans' Environments Study, which tracked American military veterans who received care from the Department of Veterans Affairs between 2009 and 2014. This resulted in a gigantic sample of 1.7 million people, all of whom had their height and weight recorded on a regular basis.

"We conducted annual measure of the geographic accessibility of chain supermarkets, non-chain supermarkets, 'supercenters' and other mass merchandisers, chain fast-food restaurants and non-chain fast-food restaurants for each person and year," the researchers write. Specifically, they recorded the number of such outlets within one mile and within three miles of the person's residence, and noted the ratio of supermarkets to fast food outlets.

Measuring their impact over the five-year period, "we found almost no evidence that absolute or relative geographic accessibility of supermarkets, fast-food restaurants, or mass merchandisers affected BMI [body-mass index]," the researchers conclude. (BMI is a standard measure of whether one is overweight, although its usefulness is debated by some.)

Now, it's possible that increased access to supermarkets increased neighborhood residents' nutritional intake, even if it didn't lower their weight. And it's worth noting that children were not included in this study.

Nevertheless, the results clearly suggest that manipulating the local availability of food sources won't, by itself, bring down the obesity rate.

"Changes in food access may need to be accompanied by fiscal policies that alter the relative prices of healthy and unhealthy foods and beverages," the researchers write in the journal Health Affairs. In other words, subsidizing fruits and vegetables may make them more attractive to low-income shoppers.

Then again, it may not. Breaking our addiction to unhealthy fast food will clearly be a long, difficult process. When it comes to the instant gratification we seem to view as our birthright, golden delicious apples can't compete with the golden arches.