Who Eats the Most Fast Food? Hint: It's Not Who You Think

Fast-food fact number one: The people you see in the Burger Barn are more like you than you might realize.

December 6, 2011

Class warfare? Not at fast-food restaurants.

Conventional wisdom has long held that income levels and obesity go hand in hand: Those with lower incomes have higher obesity rates, their diets filled with the plethora of cheap foods that are unhealthy and heavily processed, while wealthier people have healthier weights because they can afford more expensive, healthier foods. But some figures released last year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) don't jibe with that assumption. The CDC's figures found that the highest percentage of obese adults in America was not among those surviving on food stamps, but those with incomes of $50,000 and $75,000 per year for a family of four.


A new study from the University of California–Davis, might explain why. Apparently, the study found, middle-class Americans are more likely than poor Americans to eat at fast-food restaurants. The results were based on survey data from 1996 (the most recent data available on the subject), collected from a national sample of 5,000 people, and revealed that visits to fast-food restaurants rose with annual household income up to $60,000. At that income level, fast-food restaurant visits decreased, but eating at full-service (sit-down) restaurants continued to rise. The study was published last month in the journal Population Health Management.

Though the data used was relatively old, the study's lead author J. Paul Leigh, professor of public health sciences at UC–Davis and a specialist in health economics, said in an accompanying statement that he would expect to get similar results with more up-to-date info. "Low prices, convenience, and free toys target the middle class—especially budget-conscious, hurried parents—very well," he said, adding that the fast-food industry attracts the middle class by locating restaurants right off freeways in middle-income areas and by offering food with broad appeal. He also found that people who work long hours were more likely to hit the drive-thru—sound familiar?

It might be a fact that fast food is more convenient, but it's not always cheaper and not the best alternative for the budget-minded. Reporters from The New York Times conducted their own test to see how cheaply a family of four could eat earlier this year. They paid $28 for dinner for four at McDonald's, but were able to pay $14 for a dinner of chicken, potatoes, and a salad and just $9 for a mostly vegetarian dinner of pinto beans, rice, bacon, and various seasonings (that meal also had the fewest calories of the three). That's music to the ears of U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, who has long worked to bust the myth that healthy eating is more expensive. She cites USDA economists who have calculated that eating the recommended levels of fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables costs an average of $2 to $2.50 per person per day—and those are consistently less expensive than processed fruits and vegetables.

It's really not that difficult to strike a balance between convenience and affordability, says chef Michel Nischan, head chef at the Dressing Room, a farm-to-table restaurant in Westport, Connecticut, and founder of Wholesome Wave Foundation, a nonprofit devoted to improving access to healthy, local, affordable food. Here's what he suggests:

• Spend a few hours on the weekend cooking staples, such as beans and rice, which you can freeze for later in the week or store in your fridge for a few days.

• Cook casseroles or pasta dishes that freeze well.

• Pre-cook vegetables, either by blanching or roasting them, and store them in the refrigerator, so chopping and prep work won't keep you from cooking during the week.

• Most importantly, utilize leftovers to eliminate waste and save money. You can get two to three meals out of one cooking session just by varying a single ingredient.

For tips and recipes, see:
Sustainable Chef Offers Ways to Make Healthy Cooking Easier
5 Healthy Spins on Classic, Economical Casseroles
The Most Underutilized Tool in Your Kitchen
How to Beat Fast-Food Companies at Their Own Game