Everybody Does It! Rich and Poor Eat Fast Food

MedicalResearch.com Interview with:
Jay L. Zagorsky

Center for Human Resource Research
The Ohio State University and
Patricia K. Smith PhD
Department of Social Sciences
University of Michigan-Dearborn

MedicalResearch.com: What is the background for this study?

Response: The prevalence of adult obesity in the U.S. has risen substantially, from about 13% in the early 1960s to nearly 38% now.  Obesity is associated with a variety of illnesses and imposes significant costs on individuals and society.

Socioeconomic (SES) gradients in health and the prevalence of disease, including obesity, have been documented: health improves and disease prevalence falls as we move up each step of the SES ladder.  Differences in nutrition could help explain these health gradients and Americans commonly think the poor eat fast food more often than those in the middle and upper classes. Policy based on this notion has been proposed.  For example, in 2008 Los Angeles placed a moratorium on new fast-food restaurants in poor neighborhoods.

MedicalResearch.com: What does our study do?

Response: We use the 2008, 2010, and 2012 waves of National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY79), a large nationally-representative survey, to test whether there is a       socioeconomic gradient in fast-food consumption. In short, we test the hypothesis that the poor eat the most and the wealthy eat the least fast food.  Previous studies of the relationship between SES and fast food relied mostly on data at least a decade old and measured SES only as income. The NLSY79 offers more recent data and enables us to measure SES as both income (a flow measure) and wealth (a stock measure).

The NLSY79 asked “In the past seven days, how many times did you eat food from a fast food restaurant such as McDonalds, Kentucky Fried  Chicken, Pizza Hut, or Taco Bell?” We use the responses to this question to measure the frequency of fast-food consumption.

MedicalResearch.com: What are the main findings?

Response: Most people (79.1%) ate fast food at least once in the 21-day survey period.

We didn’t find evidence of an socioeconomic gradient in fast-food consumption. Although the wealthiest 20% were somewhat less likely to report fast-food intake than the poorest 20%, there was no difference between those in the middle and those at the bottom of the wealth distribution. Contrary to popular belief, as income rises from the bottom of the distribution upward, fast-food consumption increases. This positive association disappears as we move from the middle to the top of the income distribution, however.

The differences in fast-food intake by wealth and income are small.  For example, a $100,000 increase in wealth corresponds to only a 3.4% decrease in number of fast-food meals.  Our simulations show that moving the typical respondent from poorest 10% to richest 10% lowers likelihood of eating fast food from 91% to 85% and the  number of meals from 5.1 to 4.6. 

MedicalResearch.com: What should readers take away from this paper?

Response:     Fast-food consumption doesn’t much vary by socioeconomic status.  Policies intended to reduce fast-food consumption specifically among low-income adults are unlikely to reduce health inequalities. Factors such as working and checking nutrition labels matter more than socioeconomic gradient.  Workers eat 15% to 18% more fast-food meals than non-workers, indicating convenience is an important determinant of fast-food consumption. Policies which make healthier foods more convenient could improve adult nutrition and health.

Adults who check ingredient labels frequently eat 16 % to 23% fewer fast-food meals than adults who don’t.   Encouraging Americans to read these labels and making them easier to understand could help sway consumers toward healthier meal options.

MedicalResearch.com: What recommendations do we make for future research?

Response:     Understanding why checking ingredient labels, but not nutrition labels, reduces fast-food consumption could indicate how to better communicate information about the    nutritional content and health consequences of different foods.

Fast-food restaurants have been adding healthier options to their menus, so it would be interesting to study what influences a consumer’s choice of menu items once they enter a fast-food establishment.

MedicalResearch.com: Thank you for your contribution to the MedicalResearch.com community.


The association between socioeconomic status and adult fast-food consumption in the U.S.
Volume 27, Part A, November 2017, Pages 12–25
Economics & Human Biology

Note: Content is Not intended as medical advice. Please consult your health care provider regarding your specific medical condition and questions.

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