Obesity Science Catches Up With the Sound Bite

Two myth-shattering pieces of obesity science hit the academic world this morning, and the usual controlling, finger-wagging party poopers are regrouping. Yes, indeed, victory is sweet. Taken together, the two studies should go a long way toward bursting the activist fantasy that getting between Americans and the foods they enjoy is the road to better health. 
In Los Angeles, researchers from the RAND Corporation (including noted food scold Deborah Cohen) looked at a new zoning ordinance that keeps fast-food restaurants from opening in one poor area of the city. The theory behind the move, of course, was that economically disadvantaged Angelenos needed the firm hand of government to steer them away from an extra-value meal deal. 
Did it work? "We argue that the premises for the ban were questionable," the RAND researchers write. In fact, wealthier areas of town had a higher concentration of fast-food restaurants than the poorer sections of Los Angeles. The actual data, the study says, disagreed with "media reports about an over-concentration of fast-food establishments" in South Los Angeles. 
But don’t worry, overzealous regulators. The RAND authors assure us that if fast-food zoning doesn’t make us all stick-thin, labeling menus with calorie counts will do the trick:

Regulations on the horizon may be more likely to address the problem of overconsumption than the action in Los Angeles. Menu labeling is one such provision that provides information consumers need to make informed choices (the economist’s view) as well as cues that help people restrain themselves from ordering portions that have too many calories (the psychologist’s interpretation).

Which brings us to today’s second piece of good news: Calorie-count menu labeling in New York City is an unmitigated failure. The New York Times reports today that when professors from Yale and New York University interviewed fast-food eaters in New York City and Newark, NJ, they found something surprising. Typical customers ignored calorie numbers posted on menu boards and simply ate what they wanted to: 

[A]bout half the customers noticed the calorie counts, which were prominently posted on menu boards. About 28 percent of those who noticed them said the information had influenced their ordering, and 9 out of 10 of those said they had made healthier choices as a result.
But when the researchers checked receipts afterward, they found that people had, in fact, ordered slightly more calories than the typical customer had before the labeling law went into effect … 

“In an ideal world,” researchers wrote, “calorie labeling on menus and menu boards would have an immediate and direct impact on everyone’s food choices.” But this is the real world. And people still have choices that are (thankfully) immune from tinker-happy social engineers. At least for now. NYU study author Brian Elbel tells the Times that the menu tinkering is far from over: “[L]abels are not enough.”

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