Eating fast food is frequently blamed for damaging our health. It is not the healthiest type of meal since it is typically high in fat and salt. Because of this some government officials have considered regulating parts of the fast food industry to improve public health and reduce health inequalities across society.
Regulating fast food locations to improve health among low income Americans rests partly on a key assumption: that fast food is primarily eaten by poor people, who cannot afford nutritious but more expensive food. Mark Bittman in the New York Times, summed it up nicely: “The ‘fact’ that junk food is cheaper than real food has become a reflexive part of how we explain why so many Americans are overweight, particularly those with lower incomes.”
Our recently published research examined this assumption by looking at who eats fast food using a large nationwide random sample. What we found surprised us. The poor don’t eat the most fast food. Instead, the middle class do. Moreover, the difference between the proportion of rich people and poor people who eat fast food was quite small. It seems when you ask people if they ate at a fast food restaurant like McDonalds, Kentucky Fried Chicken or Taco Bell last week, the majority of rich, poor and middle class said “yes.”
Who Eats Fast Food?
In retrospect, the fact that everyone eats fast food should not have been surprising. There are rich and famous people, like President Donald Trump, who state they are fans of fast food. Trump even made a commercial for McDonalds in 2002 extolling the virtues of their hamburgers. President Bill Clinton was so fond of fast food, Saturday Night Live created a skit parodying his visits to McDonald’s.
Our research didn’t look at famous people. Instead it used a cross-section of young baby boomers living in the U.S from all walks of life. Thousands of respondents were asked by interviewers how often they ate fast food during three different week-long periods. Overall, 79% of the respondents said they ate fast food at least once.
Breaking the respondents down by their income did not show big differences. Among the ten percent with the highest income, about 75% ate fast food at least once in a three-week period. The corresponding figure for the poorest ten percent was 81%. Both numbers are not very different from the 85% rate for people with incomes in the middle.
We also found that people whose income or wealth changed dramatically up or down during our study period didn’t change their fast-food eating habits. This suggests becoming richer or poorer doesn’t have much impact on how often people eat fast food.
If fast food isn’t particularly healthy, then why do so many people eat it? Our research confirms people eat it because it’s fast and convenient. We find the more hours someone works the more likely they are to eat fast food, regardless of their income or wealth.
Attempts to Fix Public Nutrition
These results suggest focusing on preventing poor people from having access to fast food may be misguided. For example, Los Angeles in 2008 banned new freestanding fast food restaurants from opening in the poor neighborhoods of South L.A. The reason for the ban was because “fast-food businesses in low-income areas, particularly along the Southeast Los Angeles commercial corridors, intensifies socio-economic problems in the neighborhoods, and creates serious public health problems.”
While research suggests this ban did not work these fights over food continue today. Donald Trump clearly has different eating habits than his predecessor, Barrack Obama. Because of this shift in presidential attitudes toward food and government’s role in society the Trump administration is rolling back Obama’s nutritional regulations on school lunches and new labeling requirements for restaurants and other food providers.
Fast Food Industry
The type and number of regulations are important because fast food restaurants are big business in the US. The latest figures from 2012 show there are over 120,000 franchised limited service restaurants, employing about 2.6 million people. These stores had sales of around $130 billion, which means about $400 in yearly sales for each person living in the US.
The data on the fast food industry highlight one important reason why the poor do not eat more fast food. Meals in these restaurants are not cheap in absolute terms. The typical limited service restaurant meal costs over eight dollars. Fast food is cheap only in comparison to eating in a full-service restaurant.
Moreover, this eight dollar figure is quite high compared to the US poverty line, which for a family of two is a bit above $16,000, or about $44 per day. It is doubtful a poor family of two is willing to constantly spend an average of $16 on eating a single fast food meal, since it i over one-third of their daily income.
Our goal is not to be fast food cheerleaders. We do not doubt that a diet high in fast food is unhealthy. We do doubt that the poor eat fast food more than anyone else.
If politicians are really trying to help improve the health of the poor, limiting fast food restaurants in low income neighborhoods is not the way to go. Our research shows that drinking soda is associated with increase fast-food consumption. Soda taxes could lower intake of sugary drinks and fast food, but these goods are often bundled together as value meals and the tax faces stiff opposition from well-funded sources.
We also find that checking ingredients is associated with lower fast-food intake, while working more hours raises fast-food consumption. This suggests that making it easier for Americans to learn what is in their food could help sway consumers away from fast food and toward healthier eating options. More importantly, policies to make nutritious foods more convenient would help offset the lure of fast food. It’s hard to choose nutritious foods if they are not available and affordable.