By Alexandra Sifferlin
March 19, 2015

A Los Angeles law meant to improve obesity rates didn’t work out as planned, a new study shows.

In 2008, South Los Angeles passed an ordinance that restricted the opening or expansion of new stand-alone fast food restaurants, in hopes of making residents healthier. However, new research published in the journal Social Science & Medicine reveals that little happened to the diets and obesity rates of people living in the region.

The researchers looked at both the number of food outlets opening in the city, as well as data on neighborhood eating habits and weight. The number of residents who were overweight or obese increased from 2007 to 2012—including in South Los Angeles. Only sugary drink consumption dropped.

“Environmental change is slow, so we should not expect dramatic immediate effects,” the study authors write. But they acknowledge another explanation, too: that the ordinance didn’t target the outlets it should have. The researchers report that South Los Angeles is characterized by smaller food outlets or convenience stores rather than typical fast-food chains. Food outlets that were added since the ordinance looked similar to the outlets that were already there, the authors say.

“It would seem unlikely that changes in the food environment due to the regulation could have had a meaningful impact on dietary choices in South LA,” says study author Roland Sturm, a senior economist at the non-profit research organization RAND.

But the study authors note that in the long run, the fast-food ban could help effect change in a more symbolic way: by helping to shift the mindset of how residents of the area approach food.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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