Middle class, not poor, eat more fast food

UC DAVIS (US) — As earnings increase from low to middle class, so does the frequency of fast-food dining, weakening the argument that fast food can be blamed for higher rates of obesity among the poor.

“There is a correlation between obesity and lower income, but it cannot be solely attributed to restaurant choice,” says J. Paul Leigh, professor of public health sciences at University of California, Davis. “Fast-food dining is most popular among the middle class, who are less likely to be obese.”

For a new study, published online in Population Health Management, Leigh and co-author DaeHwan Kim used data from the 1994 to 1996 Continuing Survey of Food Intakes by Individuals and the accompanying Diet and Health Knowledge Survey.

The nationally representative sample of nearly 5,000 people in the U.S. included data about food consumption patterns, including restaurant visits over two nonconsecutive days, which was compared with demographic variables such as household income, race, gender, age, and education.

Eating at full-service restaurants, which involve a range of food choices and sit-down service, followed an expected pattern: as income rose, visits increased. In contrast, eating at fast-food restaurants, characterized by minimal table service and food preparation time, followed a different pattern. Fast-food restaurant visits rose along with annual household income up to $60,000. As income increased beyond that level, fast-food visits decreased.

The fast-food industry attracts the middle class by locating restaurants off freeways in middle-income areas and by offering products that appeal to a large proportion of Americans, Leigh notes. “Low prices, convenience, and free toys target the middle class—especially budget-conscious, hurried parents—very well.”

Additional correlations revealed in the study included:

  • Men were more likely than women to go to both fast-food and full-service restaurants.
  • People with more education were more likely to go to full-service restaurants.
  • People who worked more hours were more likely to go to both fast-food and full-service restaurants.
  • Smokers were more likely to go to fast-food rather than full-service restaurants.

The study was limited because data came from the mid-1990s, the most recent information available. Although incomes have changed considerably since then, Leigh believes that the eating-out patterns would still hold if more up-to-date data were available.

“It has traditionally been difficult to define patterns of restaurant consumption for Americans according to their incomes,” he says. “By using a very large, nationally representative database that includes detailed information on income, we have solved that puzzle.”

Based on his findings, Leigh suggests that policymakers and researchers look beyond restaurant type for reasons for and solutions to the obesity epidemic. He plans to study the effects of food pricing on food choices.

“Pricing is critical to low-income families, and over the past 30 years the costs of less healthy options have dropped compared to healthier fare,” said Leigh. “One potential way to encourage healthier eating could be to charge taxes that increase based on the number of calories in food. Proceeds from the taxes could then be used to subsidize and reduce the costs of healthy foods.”

Co-author DaeHwan Kim, who earned his doctorate in economics at UC Davis, is currently with the Korea Insurance Research Institutes in Seoul. The research was funded in part by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.

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  1. havetodumbdown

    Stereotypes are never all inclusive, but usually, only losers work at fast food restaurants. But we seem to expect them to feel pride and gratitude that they serve us junk food. We forget the turnover rate is like 50% or more, and there is rarely anonymous third party review except a little mystery shopping, but the competition is so fierce, there is little money even for that. I mean, many order off the dollar menu, and want Titanic main dining room experience for their 2 bucks. Only Chick fil A has really high standards and 2nd is Mcdonalds, but still the losers still fall through the cracks, for they are not really upset at losing their $5 an hr job if they get caught. The managers on duty are over worked, underpaid, and generally societal rejects meaning they could not find better work elsewhere. Restaurant work is certainly one of the hardest jobs out there and pay is low for the number of hours worked.

    The pen is mightier than the sword, but sometimes we certainly feel like using the sword on these people, so we can put them out of their misery, and ours as it turns out. If we could only convince them that if you are at work, you might as well try to be nice and efficient at your job (like Coming Home, Eddie Murphy) and good things will happen soon if you keep your spirits and ethics up. But most of them do not and hate being there.

  2. C

    @havelodumdown after reading your comments It reaffirms my decision to just stay on SSI since I know the best job I can hope to aspire to with my mental defects is a fast food job..which SOUNDS miserable seeing the kind of people I’d have to serve..middle class a-holes.! Thanks for the encouragement . It’s good to know about how much more respect I’d receive by choosing to work. Now I am going down to the pool…rather then make you miserable with my attitude towards serving you.

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