Tennessee is losing the battle of the bulge, and it isn’t pretty.

More than 30 percent of Tennesseans were obese in 2007, the fourth-highest rate in the nation. But the reaction by those state and municipal officials who want to institute mandatory menu labeling rules is the wrong tactic for slimming down the Volunteer State. Menu labeling doesn’t fight obesity. Most people know how to lose weight or keep from putting on pounds. Instead of ineffective mandates, Tennessee should focus on strategies that actually work.

A recent study from Yale University found that only six out of more than 4,000 restaurant customers looked at calorie information when it was provided. People already know the difference between a triple bacon cheeseburger and a salad.

But a lack of evidence hasn’t discouraged the self-appointed food police from similar efforts around the country. Last summer, Los Angeles introduced “health zoning,” banning new fast-food restaurants from opening stores in certain neighborhoods. Thirteen city council members decided that a half-million residents couldn’t be trusted to decide what to eat for themselves.

This kind of haphazard prohibition is a natural consequence of nutrition activists’ single-minded focus on food as the sole culprit behind Americans’ expanding waistlines. The truth is that solutions to our obesity problem are going to be complex, and we can’t afford to continue to implement feel-good policies that ignore scientific evidence in favor of political convenience.

A just-released study by Indiana University researchers turns activists’ food claims on their head. The comprehensive longitudinal study, which looked at data for 60,000 children over 11 years, found little relation between children’s weight and living near fast-food restaurants. Further undercutting the basis for draconian food-zoning laws was the study’s finding that proximity to supermarkets selling healthy fruits and vegetables had no effect on children’s weight.

So what did help fight obesity? The study found that living near recreational facilities like soccer fields and tennis courts lowered children’s body mass index.

A study published earlier this year in the journal Pediatrics found that nearly a third of schoolchildren get little or no daily recess. The researchers recommend that childhood obesity should be addressed with more physical activity in school, where kids spend a majority of their days.

Meanwhile, a survey by the Tennessee Department of Health found that 43 percent of kids in the state are either overweight or at risk of it. To reverse this disturbing trend, the state should ensure that every child has ample opportunities to do what kids do best: play.
Policies that rely on the “stick” instead of the “carrot” don’t work. By cooking up feel-good policies like menu labeling, Tennessee lawmakers are mixing up a recipe for failure.