There are increasing calls for the government to restrict salty food and fast-food restaurants, and tax fast food, to curb obesity. This is especially true in the aftermath of the passage of Obamacare, which will shift more health care costs to taxpayers, creating the appearance of a public-health rationale for restricting what people eat. One city even imposed a moratorium on new fast food restaurants.
But there is little evidence that fast food causes obesity. Eating a hamburger won’t make you fat — as I noted earlier, hamburgers are healthier and less fatty than other foods not hated by food snobs, like Quiche Lorraine. (I had four quarter-pound cheeseburgers last night, with fries — the usual number when I have hamburgers for dinner — and I am not fat; although admittedly, the burgers were home-made, and thus made of leaner ground beef than that used in many restaurant burgers.)
Even if people who eat at fast-food restaurants are fatter than the public at large, there is little reason to believe that the fast food made them fat. It is more likely a manifestation of the socioeconomic class of people who comprise most of their customers. Less affluent people tend to be fatter in America than more affluent people, even in areas with fewer fast-food restaurants — and people who eat out frequently may well be fatter than those who don’t, regardless of whether they eat at a fast-food restaurant or a more upscale restaurant.
And many people who eat at fast-food restaurants are not fat at all. For example, when I ate mostly at McDonald’s (because I worked there at the time), I lost 10 pounds over the course of a summer. Since such people are not overweight, taxing the fast food they eat will do nothing to reduce obesity. It simply imposes a regressive tax on people of modest means.
The FDA is now seeking to cut the amount of salt on our food, even though prevailing salt levels do no harm to most people, and cutting salt consumption will actually harm some people. Ironically, if salt levels are curbed, people will compensate by eating fattier food. There seems to be a trade-off between salt and fat. Low-fat foods sometimes contain added salt to make them palatable to dieters. When I lived in Irvine, California, where the shelves of the grocery store seemed full of low-fat foods, I checked the sodium levels. I found that the sodium levels of low-fat foods were slightly higher than the regular or full-fat versions. If the high sodium levels of such low-fat foods are forced down by FDA regulations, people may react by returning to consumption of the fattier foods, resulting in rising obesity levels. The government’s anti-salt crusade may thus result in its anti-fat crusade backfiring.