The Effect of Fast Food Restaurants on Obesity

An abstract from new working paper by Janet Currie, Stefano DellaVigna, Enrico Moretti, and Vikram Pathania. (I went to grad school with Moretti.)

We investigate the health consequences of changes in the supply of fast food using the exact geographical location of fast food restaurants. Specifically, we ask how the supply of fast food affects the obesity rates of 3 million school children and the weight gain of over 1 million pregnant women. We find that among 9th grade children, a fast food restaurant within a tenth of a mile of a school is associated with at least a 5.2 percent increase in obesity rates. There is no discernable effect at .25 miles and at .5 miles. Among pregnant women, models with mother fixed effects indicate that a fast food restaurant within a half mile of her residence results in a 2.5 percent increase in the probability of gaining over 20 kilos. The effect is larger, but less precisely estimated at .1 miles. In contrast, the presence of non-fast food restaurants is uncorrelated with obesity and weight gain. Moreover, proximity to future fast food restaurants is uncorrelated with current obesity and weight gain, conditional on current proximity to fast food. The implied effects of fast-food on caloric intake are at least one order of magnitude smaller for mothers, which suggests that they are less constrained by travel costs than school children. Our results imply that policies restricting access to fast food near schools could have significant effects on obesity among school children, but similar policies restricting the availability of fast food in residential areas are unlikely to have large effects on adults.

This seems like really important work and I find it amazing that it hasn't been done already. It must be getting the detailed data that's so difficult.

Anyhow, a couple small quibbles:

(1) Please do not report percent changes in obesity rates. Instead, write "a fast food restaurant within a tenth of a mile of a school is associated with average increase obseity from X to Y among 9th graders." I am sure at least half your readers will misread "5.2 percent" as "5.2 percentage points" and those two things are WAY different.

(2) The title suggests findings more sweeping than what you can identify with the data and empirical strategy you have. Another title more well-suited to the actual findings would be nice. I kind of like the way natural scientists write titles in journals like science and nature; that is, typically with a statement of findings. I don't know why this doesn't seem to fly in economics journals. In this case, the title might be: "Fast-Food Restaurants Very Near Schools Increase Obesity in 9th Graders."


  1. While studies related to this subject have been carried out, I have not been able to find one to this degree in detail.

    I think it is absolutely crucial that we begin lobbying against the siting of fast-food restaurants within close proximity to schools; zones encompassing approx. 0.5 miles around schools as a realistic goal in order to start curbing the fast-food consumption of children.

  2. maggie.danhakl@healthline.comDecember 5, 2014 at 1:13 PM

    Hi Michael,

    I thought you might find this interesting. Healthline has compiled a list of the Effects Fast Food on the Body in a visual graphic and I thought you and your readers would be interested in seeing the information.

    You can check out the information at We’ve had good feedback about the article and we think it will benefit your readers by giving them med-reviewed information in a visual way.

    If you think this information is a good fit for your audience would you share it on your site, , or social media?

    Let me know what you think and have a great week.

    All the best,
    Maggie Danhakl • Assistant Marketing Manager
    p: 415-281-3100 f: 415-281-3199

    Healthline • The Power of Intelligent Health
    660 Third Street, San Francisco, CA 94107 | @Healthline | @HealthlineCorp


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