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The Fat Police Are Failing

McDonald's Meal
AP
McDonald's Meal

According to a study by the Health division of the RAND Corp., restrictions on the availability of fast food in poorer neighborhoods of Los Angeles "are unlikely to improve the diet of residents or reduce obesity."

Why?

Because people aren't getting fat on fast food.

Instead, liquor stores and small convenience stores are "more likely to be the source of high-calorie snacks and soda consumed substantially more often by residents of South Los Angeles as compared to other parts of the city."

So go long on McDonald's, short 7-11.

The study looked at the results of a city law passed last year which put a moratorium on building any more fast-food restaurants in South LA, an area where 30 percent of the children are obese, compared to 21 percent in the rest of the city. The RAND study suggests the law is based on a lot of bad information.

Healthy Horizons -- A Special Report
Healthy Horizons -- A Special Report

For one thing, "South Los Angeles actually has a lower concentration of fast-food chain restaurants than other parts of the city"-19 restaurants per 100,000 residents compared to 30 per 100,000 citywide, and 29 per 100,000 in higher income neighborhoods in West LA.

Also, the study found that residents in South LA eat the same amount of fruits and vegetables as those living in more affluent neighborhoods, and they also share the same level of activity. While residents of South LA watch more television, they're also more likely to walk to the store to get food (exercise!).

In passing the law, the city may have gone after easy targets - KFC, McDonald's , Jack-in-the-Box - instead of the real culprits, the small mom and pop stores and food carts. Putting a moratorium on those people would not be politically expedient.

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Finally, the RAND report says that one of the goals of the law was to encourage the creation of more "sit-down restaurants", which may not be a good thing. "There is a misconception that sit-down restaurants provide 'healthier' food and are less likely to lead to obesity," says RAND economist Roland Sturm. "However, when we looked at some common offerings, an average lunch sandwich in a sit-down restaurant had more than the combined calories of three Big Mac hamburgers; many dinner choices have over 2,000 calories and cover the energy needs for a full day. And that does not even include possible appetizers or desserts."

I experienced this first-hand last weekend, when, for the first time, I was handed a nutritional information menu at the Cheesecake Factory along with the regular menu. It was quite an eye-opener. Granted, you get two meals in one at that restaurant if you have the discipline to stop eating halfway through and take the rest home. But I was surprised to learn that the chicken piccata I usually order (because I thought it was low-cal) actually has almost twice the calories of the Factory Burger. Many entrees top 2,000 calories. The Cheesecake Factory is starting to offer smaller-portion specials, but I wonder if revealing the caloric truth will hurt sales. I ended up ordering the burger, at 737 calories. Next time I'll make it a Big Mac-a svelte 584 calories.

Questions? Comments? Funny Stories? Email funnybusiness@cnbc.com

  • Based in Los Angeles, Jane Wells is a CNBC business news reporter and also writes the Funny Business blog for CNBC.com.

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