As earnings increase from low to middle income, fast food dining also increases, according to a new national study that weakens the popular idea that fast food is responsible 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,” said J. Paul Leigh, professor of public health sciences at UC Davis and senior author of the study, which is published online in Population Health Management.
“Fast-food dining is most popular among the middle class — who are less likely to be obese.”
For the study, Leigh and colleagues analyzed data from the 1994 to 1996 Continuing Survey of Food Intakes by Individuals as well as the accompanying Diet and Health Knowledge Survey.
The data revealed information on food consumption patterns of nearly 5,000 people in the U.S., including how many times each individual ate at restaurants during two nonconsecutive days; this was then compared with demographic variables such as household income, race, gender, age and education.
Researchers found that visits to full-service restaurants (sit-down service and a variety of food choices) followed a predictable pattern: as income rose, visits increased. Interestingly, eating at fast-food restaurants (minimal table service and food preparation time) followed a different pattern; these visits increased along with annual household income up to $60,000. However, as income increased beyond that level, fast-food visits decreased.
Leigh noted that the fast-food industry draws in the middle class by putting restaurants right off highways in middle income areas and by offering products that appeal to a large proportion of Americans.
“Low prices, convenience and free toys target the middle class β especially budget-conscious, hurried parents β very well,” said Leigh.
Additional correlations found in the study included the following: men were more likely than women to go to both fast-food and full-service restaurants; individuals with more education were more likely to go to full-service restaurants; individuals who worked more hours were more likely to go to both fast-food and full-service restaurants; and smokers were more likely to eat at fast-food rather than full-service restaurants.
Although the research was limited by the fact that the data was from the mid-1990s (the most recent information available on this subject), 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,” said Leigh. “By using a very large, nationally representative database that includes detailed information on income, we have solved that puzzle.”
Based on these results, Leigh suggests that policymakers and researchers look beyond restaurant type for answers to the obesity epidemic.
“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.”
Source: University of California