Most people have a love-hate relationship with fast food. From McDonald’s and Burger King to Taco Bell and even places known for more healthful fare like this bagel company, fast food restaurants have become such a big part of American culture. Fast food is what you get when you’re craving for something really tasty, and you want that something now.
But while fast food has made its way to the hearts of many, there are those who think fast food is very bad for them. Obesity numbers are on the rise? Just blame it on the fast food, these people say. Seven years ago, Los Angeles took this one step further and made national headlines when they banned new fast food restaurants from opening in South L.A.
The move was unprecedented, but it was also part of an effort to curb obesity and improve the health of its residents. This restriction was then approved by the L.A. city council, even if the restaurant industry was very much opposed to it. After seven years, did it achieve what it intended?
The answer, to be perfectly blunt, is NO.
“What has changed? Well, nothing.” This is a statement from Roland Sturm, a senior economist at Rand and the lead author of the study that examined the effects of the ban.
The study examined the effects from 2007 to 2012, and contrary to what the ban wanted to achieve, the obesity incidence in L.A. actually increased. Not only that, but the increase is significantly greater in South L.A., the area covered by the fast food ban.
In particular, the percentage of people who are obese and overweight in South L.A. increased to 75% (from 63%). The rest of the country is only at 57%, so these numbers are truly significant. If the purpose of the L.A. ordinance that banned fast food restaurants in South L.A. was to lower obesity, then it seems to have done the opposite. These numbers are based on data conducted by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research during the California Health
Not only did the obesity incidence increase, but there was also an increase in actual fast food consumption. This is true not only for South L.A., but for the entire county. You could say that even if there was a fast food ban, it seems that people patronized fast food restaurants even more.
Of course, you can’t expect life-long eating habits to change overnight. This is exactly what Councilman Bernard C. Parks says. He co-wrote the zoning restrictions and when presented with the Rand report, he wasn’t at all surprised with the numbers.
He maintains that “We never believed it was going to be an overnight situation where all of a sudden the community was going to be healthy.” While the Rand report shows those figures, Councilman Parks stays behind his belief that this ordinance is a vital first step that could break and change the unhealthy eating habits in the entire region.
It’s also worth noting that while the fast food ban was the one that really made headlines, the ordinance was meant to be just a part of a bigger strategy for a healthier L.A. The other part of the strategy that has yet to be instituted include replacing these fast food restaurants with healthier farmers markets and grocery stores. The goal really is to help people in L.A. make healthier life choices, and banning fast food is only one part of it.
The Rand study shows that even if the desire is there, it’s difficult to translate what you know into effective policy. There are many things that affect obesity, and a fast food ban alone is clearly not the answer.
In fact, research in the last couple of years has shown us that there are many social factors that affect health. Where people live, the availability of healthy food in the neighborhood, and how much money they have to spend can affect what they eat.
Valerie Ruelas takes this a step further. As the Community Diabetes Initiatives Director at USC, she says that there’s no magic pill solution that will solve all the obesity problems. This is because what people eat can be affected by so many factors: preferences, behavior, location, education, and access.
Because the factors affecting eating habits are so complex, you can’t expect obesity to drop by simply banning fast food restaurants. It’s not the magic solution people are looking for.
In fact, there may be no magic solution. Eating at fast food restaurants all the time could definitely take a toll on your weight, but banning it entirely is not the answer. What we need is to be educated on what to eat and how to condition ourselves to eat healthier, even when we find ourselves in our favorite fast food restaurant.