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No, poor people don't eat more junk food than everyone else

Fast food isn’t actually that cheap.

Customers purchase food at a McDonald's restaurant on June 1 along the New York State Thruway in Plattekill, New York.
Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Fast food is frequently blamed for damaging our health. As nutrition experts point out, it typically has excessive amounts of fat, salt, and calories per serving. More broadly, it’s seen as a key factor in the growing obesity epidemic in the US and throughout the world.

And because the hamburgers, milkshakes, and fried chicken sold at fast food franchises are relatively inexpensive, there’s an assumption that poor people eat more than other socioeconomic groups. That assumption has led some local governments to try to ban fast food restaurants from certain low-income areas. Food journalist Mark Bittman summed up the sentiment succinctly in a column in 2011:

“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 research, recently published in the journal Economics & Human Biology, examined this assumption by looking at who eats fast food using a large sample of random Americans. What we found surprised us: Poor people were actually less likely to eat fast food — and ate it less frequently — than those in the middle class. And the poor are only a little more likely to eat fast food than the rich.

In other words, the guilty pleasure of fast food is shared across the income spectrum, from rich to poor, with an overwhelming majority of every group reporting having indulged at least once over a nonconsecutive three-week period.

A diet of Cokes and Oreos

The fact that everyone eats fast food perhaps should not actually be that surprising.

There are rich and famous people, including President Donald Trump, who trumpet their love of fast food. Trump even made a commercial for McDonald’s in 2002 extolling the virtues of their hamburgers.

Warren Buffett, one of the world’s richest people, says he “eats like a 6-year-old,” meaning lots of Oreos and Cokes every day. (He invests like one too.)

What we learned from our research is that pretty much everyone has a soft spot for fast food. We analyzed a cross-section of the youngest members of the baby boom generation — Americans born from 1957 to 1964 — from all walks of life who have been interviewed regularly since 1979. Respondents were asked about fast-food consumption in the years 2008, 2010 and 2012 — when they were in their 40s and 50s. Specifically, interviewers posed the following question:

“In the past seven days, how many times did you eat food from a fast-food restaurant such as McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut or Taco Bell?”

Overall, 79 percent of respondents said they ate fast food at least once during the three weeks. Breaking it down by income deciles (groups of 10 percent of aggregate household income) did not show big differences. Among the highest 10th of earners, about 75 percent reported eating fast food at least once in the period, compared with 81 percent for the poorest. Earners in the middle were the biggest fans of fast food, at about 85 percent.

Bureau of Labor Statistics' National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 Cohort

The data also show middle earners are more likely to eat fast food frequently, averaging a little over four meals during the three weeks, compared with three for the richest and 3.7 for the poorest.

Bureau of Labor Statistics' National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 Cohort

Because the data occurred over a four-year period, we were also able to examine whether dramatic changes in wealth or income altered individuals’ eating habits. The data showed becoming richer or poorer didn’t have much effect at all on how often people ate fast food.

Regulating fast food

These results suggest that policies 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 LA. The given 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.”

Research suggests this ban did not work, since obesity rates went up after the ban compared to other neighborhoods where fast food had no restrictions. This seems to pour cold water on other efforts to solve obesity problems by regulating the location of fast-food restaurants.

Since regulating the entire fast food industry has proven problematic, focus is now on soda. For example, ex-NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg tried banning large soda's in New York City. Philadelphia, and Berkeley, California, have both instituted a soda tax. Our guess is that soda will take center stage for the next few years.

Not all that cheap

Another problem with the stereotype about poor people and fast food is that by and large it’s not actually that cheap, in absolute monetary terms.

The typical cost per meal at a fast-food restaurant — which the US Census calls limited service — is over $8 based on the average of all limited service places. Fast food is cheap only in comparison to eating in a full-service restaurant, with the average cost totals about $15 on average.

Moreover, $8 is a lot for a family living under 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 would be able to regularly spend more than a third of its daily income eating fast food.

Why we need fast food that’s fresh and healthy

If politicians really want to improve the health of the poor, limiting fast-food restaurants in low-income neighborhoods is probably not the way to go.

So what are some alternative solutions?

We found that people who said they checked ingredients before eating new foods had lower fast-food intake. This suggests that making it easier for Americans to learn what is in their food — with better labels and calorie information on menus — could help sway consumers away from fast food and toward healthier eating options.

Another finding was that working more hours raises fast-food consumption, regardless of income level. People eat it because it’s fast and convenient. This suggests policies that make nutritious foods more readily available, quickly, could help offset the lure of fast food. For example, reducing the red tape for approving food trucks that serve meals containing fresh fruits and vegetables could promote healthier, convenient eating.

Our goal is not to be fast-food cheerleaders. We do not doubt that a diet high in fast food is unhealthy. We just doubt, based on our data, that the poor eat fast food more than anyone else.

Jay Zagorsky is an economist and research scientist at Ohio State University. Patricia Smith is a professor of economics at the University of Michigan. A version of this story was first published by The Conversation.

Further reading

Vox’s Julia Belluz on 4 fixes for the astonishing lack of vegetables in the American diet

We need to call American breakfast what it often is: dessert

Max Holleran writes for The New Republic about How Fast Food Chains Supersized Inequality.

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