Study debunks myth that fast food is mostly eaten by the poor

May 4, 2017 by Jeff Grabmeier, The Ohio State University
junk food
Credit: Maliz Ong/public domain

Whether rich or poor, one thing unites Americans of all economic classes: Our love for fast food.

A new nationwide study of young baby boomers contradicts the popular belief that fast-food consumption is concentrated among the poor.

Results showed that middle-income Americans were most likely to eat fast food, although the differences from other groups was relatively small. Even the richest people were only slightly less likely to report fast food consumption than others.

"It's not mostly poor people eating fast food in America," said Jay Zagorsky, co-author of the study and research scientist at The Ohio State University's Center for Human Resource Research.

"Rich people may have more eating options, but that's not stopping them from going to places like McDonald's or KFC."

Zagorsky, who also has an appointment with the Ohio Education Research Center, conducted the study with Patricia Smith of the University of Michigan-Dearborn. Their study was recently published online and will appear in the November 2017 issue of the journal Economics and Human Biology.

The researchers used data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, which has questioned the same group of randomly selected Americans since 1979. The NLSY is conducted by Ohio State's Center for Human Resource Research.

In the study, Zagorsky and Smith used data from about 8,000 people who were asked about their fast-food consumption in the 2008, 2010 and 2012 surveys. Participants, who were in their 40s and 50s at the time of the surveys, were asked how many times in the past seven days they had eaten "food from a fast-food restaurant such as McDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut or Taco Bell."

Results were compared with the participants' answers to questions about their wealth and income. While there were some slight differences in how wealth and income were related to , Zagorsky said the results were similar.

Overall, 79 percent of respondents ate fast food at least once and 23 percent ate three or more meals during any one of the weeks recorded in the study.

In one analysis, the researchers divided the participants into 10 groups based on income. About 80 percent of those in the lowest 10 percent of income ate at least once at a fast-food restaurant, compared to about 85 percent of those who were ranked near the middle (40 to 50 percent) in terms of income. Of the richest 10 percent, about 75 percent reported eating at least one fast-food meal.

The number of fast-food meals eaten during the three weeks of the study showed a similar pattern. The lowest 10 percent in terms of income ate about 3.6 fast-food meals during the three weeks of the survey, compared to about 4.2 meals for middle-income people and three meals for the richest 10 percent of participants.

Another key finding was that people whose income or wealth changed dramatically during the four years of the study - either going way up or way down - didn't change their eating habits.

"If you became richer or poorer, it didn't change how much fast food you ate," Zagorsky said.

One hallmark of the heavy users of fast food was a lack of time.

The study found that fast-food eaters tended to have less leisure time because they were more likely to work and work more hours than non-fast-food eaters.

The researchers also found an interesting tidbit that should be of interest to people who saw the 2004 documentary Supersize Me. In the movie, Morgan Spurlock documented what happened to his body when he ate nothing but McDonald's for 30 days.

"I thought that was just a publicity stunt, but we found real people out there who seem to eat all their meals at fast-food restaurants," Zagorsky said.

In 2008, 10 respondents claimed to eat three times a day at fast-food restaurants, as did five people in 2010 and two in 2012.

Given that about 8,000 people participated in the survey, that suggests there may be quite a few people in the United States who go through periods of time during which they eat only fast food, Zagorsky said.

Zagorsky cautioned that there are some limitations to the study. For one, the participants were not asked what they ate at the fast-food restaurants. Some may choose healthier options such as salads, or they may sometimes just go for a cup of coffee.

Also, this study included only people in their 40s or 50s. Consumption habits may be different for people at different ages.

Zagorsky said he hopes the results of this study can help guide policymakers when they come up with laws regarding how to prevent obesity or guide nutritional choices for Americans.

"If government wants to get involved in regulating nutrition and food choices, it should be based on facts. This study helps reject the myth that poor people eat more than others and may need special protection," he said.

Explore further: The fast casual conundrum

Related Stories

The fast casual conundrum

May 11, 2016
Dieters looking to cut calories may believe it's best to pick a fast casual restaurant over a fast food chain, but new research from the University of South Carolina shows that may not be the best choice.

Eating at fast food, full service restaurants linked to more calories, poorer nutrition

August 7, 2014
For adults, eating at both fast-food and full-service restaurants is associated with significant increases in the intake of calories, sugar, saturated fat, and sodium, according to a new study. The study, appearing early ...

Percentage of children eating fast food on a given day drops

March 30, 2015
A lower percentage of children are eating fast food on any given day and calories consumed by children from burger, pizza and chicken fast food restaurants also has dropped, according to an article published online by JAMA ...

Restaurant meals can be as bad for your waistline as fast food is

July 1, 2015
When Americans go out to eat, either at a fast-food outlet or a full-service restaurant, they consume, on average, about 200 more calories a day than when they stay home for meals, a new study reports. They also take in more ...

Fast food most popular with middle incomes

October 28, 2011
(Medical Xpress) -- A new national study of eating out and income shows that fast-food dining becomes more common as earnings increase from low to middle incomes, weakening the popular notion that fast food should be blamed ...

Recommended for you

Multiple screen use affects snack choices

March 19, 2018
Using multiple screen devices simultaneously while snacking may influence food choices, according to a new Michigan State University study.

Small changes in diet can have a big impact on health

March 19, 2018
How's that New Year's resolution coming along? Getting ready for summer and want to look your best? Just want to feel better physically? Whatever your motivation, Mercedes Sotos-Prieto, an assistant professor of nutrition ...

Exposure to low levels of BPA during pregnancy can lead to altered brain development

March 17, 2018
New research in mice provides an explanation for how exposure to the widely used chemical bisphenol A (BPA) during pregnancy, even at levels lower than the regulated "safe" human exposure level, can lead to altered brain ...

The coffee cannabis connection

March 15, 2018
It's well known that a morning cup of joe jolts you awake. But scientists have discovered coffee affects your metabolism in dozens of other ways, including your metabolism of steroids and the neurotransmitters typically linked ...

Smoking linked with higher risk of type 2 diabetes

March 15, 2018
The prevalence of diabetes has increased almost 10-fold in China since the early 1980s, with one in 10 adults in China now affected by diabetes. Although adiposity is the major modifiable risk factor for diabetes, other research ...

Key drivers of high US healthcare spending identified

March 13, 2018
The major drivers of high healthcare costs in the U.S. appear to be higher prices for nearly everything—from physician and hospital services to diagnostic tests to pharmaceuticals—and administrative complexity.


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet May 05, 2017
...and Americans are fatter and live shorter lives than those in peer countries...No mystery here...
not rated yet May 07, 2017
"If the government wants to get involved in regulating nutrition and food choices, it should be based on facts."

The impetus to "regulate", i.e. restrict, nutrition and food choices is not based on facts but ideology. There is a "factual" case to be made for the prohibition of meat.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.