COLUMBUS, Ohio — Whether wealthy, middle class or poor — all economic levels of Americans love their fast food options. A new nationwide study finds that 79 percent of U.S. adults said they at fast food at least once in the previous week.
Contradicting a long-held popular belief that poor Americans are the predominate fast food consumers, an Ohio State University study finds that even the richest of those surveyed are eating at the quicker, cheaper chain restaurants at nearly the same volume.
“It’s not mostly poor people eating fast food in America,” says Jay Zagorsky study co-author and research scientist at The Ohio State University’s Center for Human Resource Research in a university press release. “Rich people may have more eating options, but that’s not stopping them from going to places like McDonald’s or KFC.”
Alongside data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, which has surveyed the same group of randomly selected Americans in intervals since 1979, the researchers honed in on middle-aged participants’ fast food consumption habits. This study applied their answers about fast food in 2008, 2010 and 2012 survey intervals.
The middle-aged group in their 40s and 50s were asked how many times in the past week they’d eaten “from a fast-food restaurant such as McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut or Taco Bell.” Although participants were asked specific questions about their wealth or income, only negligible differences divided the groups. Eighty percent of participants in the lowest 10 percent of income levels ate at a fast-food establishment at least once, 75 percent of the richest 10 percent of participants also grabbed fast food and middle-income respondents consumed at the highest rate of 85 percent.
Among all participants, nearly 8-in-10 ate fast food at least once in the past week and just shy of one-quarter (23 percent) ate three or more fast food meals in any of the recorded weeks.
“If you became richer or poorer, it didn’t change how much fast food you ate,” says Zagorsky.
The researchers referenced Morgan Spurlock’s 2004 documentary, “Supersize Me,” in which he recorded the effects of eating at McDonald’s three times each day. While Zagorsky said he initially thought it was just a “publicity stunt,” the 2008 survey questioned 10 respondents who said they eat fast-food three times a day, as well as five people in the 2010 follow-up and two in the 2012 survey.
Zagorsky acknowledged the limitations of the study given that some people may have chosen healthy options available at the various establishments, as well as the narrow age range that included only those in their 40s or 50s.
Ultimately, Zagorksy said he hopes policymakers and health officials can come up with a more tailored approach to obesity that doesn’t rely on the widely held belief that only those who are poor are eating plenty of fast food.
“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 fast food than others and may need special protection,” he said.