With the advent of “fast-food” lawsuits a few years ago, the trendy theory seemed to be that restaurant food was responsible for obesity. There’s a smattering of reasons that activists use to justify this hypothesis, including the observations that restaurants and obesity rates have both increased over the past few decades, and menu items often have more calories than home-cooked fare. (Of course, correlation doesn’t equal causation.) But people everywhere who enjoy going out to eat can rejoice: A new report from the Cato Institute has determined that “the causal link between the consumption of restaurant foods and obesity is minimal at best.”
The paper’s authors, professors from UC-Berkeley and Northwestern University, examined the obesity rates of populations living both close to and far away from interstate highways, which generally have a disproportionately higher concentration of restaurants to serve travelers. They determined that living close to interstates—and thus more restaurants—does not have an effect on obesity.
Why? The authors point out that people who eat out compensate for it by eating less throughout the rest of the day. In fact, the authors point to data showing that people who eat out only end up consuming 14 calories more per day than those who don’t dine out. It’s a difference that, in the authors’ words, is “too small to account for more than a trivial fraction of the increase in [Body Mass Index] observed over the past several decades.”
The study comes at an apt time. The notion of restaurants driving unhealthy behavior has recently gotten play from First Lady Michelle Obama, who said in a speech to the restaurant industry:
Even if we give parents all the information they need and improve school meals and build brand new supermarkets on every corner, none of that matters if when families step into a restaurant, they can't make a healthy choice.
With menu labeling now national law and more draconian measures being enacted, like South Los Angeles’ moratorium on new quick-service establishments, the “food police” are working from a busted assumption that reducing eating out will reduce obesity rates. But considering calories are calories, whether they come from a platter of wings or home-cooked lasagna, public health activists should heed the science and look to encourage healthy behavior by means other than command-and-control policies.