There are only so many stop-the-presses moments you get in a year, but it’s not a week into 2009 and we’ve already encountered one. U.S. News & World Report tipped us off to a study out of Northwestern University and UC-Berkeley that backs up exactly what we’ve been saying all along: There is “no evidence of a causal link between restaurants and obesity.”

Assistant professors of economics David A. Matsa (Northwestern) and Michael Anderson (Berkeley) released a report titled “Are Restaurants Really Supersizing America?” after looking at whether there is a causal connection between access to restaurants and the prevalence of obesity. In other words: Do people who live near (and eat at) restaurants have a greater risk of being fat than people who don’t? Survey says … Nope.
Rather, the evidence suggests that people who overindulge when they go out to eat are taking in too many calories for other reasons, or that they’re offsetting those calories by eating less during the rest of the day.
Matsa and Anderson go on to say that while taxing food might change where people eat, it won’t change anyone’s tendency to overeat. So messing with restaurant menu labeling, outlawing burger joints, and imposing “fat taxes” and other consumer-unfriendly penalties on ordinary people isn’t going to dissuade them from eating what they want. And it isn’t going to make anyone thin.
Finally, if proponents of the ill-conceived fast food ban in inner-city Los Angeles feel their ears burning, it may be due to this simple assessment of what’s going on in public-health circles — where food activists who love the sound of their own voices may just be wasting their breath:

[P]olicies targeted at restaurants are unlikely to lower the prevalence of obesity. Nevertheless, such policies have recently been put forward in many jurisdictions.

We’re still waiting for an econometric study that looks for causal connections between obese Americans and their homes’ distance from gyms, bike paths, ski slopes, and swim clubs. Now there’s a result that might stop the presses.