The Middle Class, Not the Poor, Eat the Most Fast Food

By Veronique Greenwood | December 5, 2011 1:29 pm

fast food
As income rises, the frequency of fast food visits rise as well, at least until income hits $60,000 a year; sit-down restaurant visits just keep on rising. (The y axis is frequency of visits.)

Obesity rates in the United States are highest among the poor, and high up on most lists of reasons why, you’ll find the truism that fast food is cheap food, and the poor, who can’t afford healthier fare, are its main consumers. A new study suggests, however, that the people eating the most fast food are middle class, with incomes as high as $60,000 a year. Using a national database of about 5,000 people, researchers at UC Davis found that the frequency of people’s visits to fast-food restaurants increased with rising household income until $60,000, when frequency started to go down (though, interestingly, people making more than $100,000 still went to fast food more than those making $20,000). Visits to sit-down restaurants, on the other hand, increased with rising income and just kept on growing.

The research indicates that ascribing a fast-food habit to the poor alone ignores the rest of the population’s predilections and may be a distraction from other causes of obesity in Americans of all income levels. As the scientists point out, restaurant meals in general are much higher in fat than home-cooked meals, yet people with larger incomes eat out far more frequently than the poor, while maintaining lower obesity rates. Restaurants are only part of the picture. In fact, given that a straight diet of fast food is beyond the means of many poor families, perhaps rock-bottom cheap, high-calorie foods sold in grocery stores are more of a problem than McDonald’s.

Image courtesy of Leigh and Kim and Population Health Management

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
  • JaberwokWSA

    “High up on most lists of reasons why, you’ll find the truism that fast food is cheap food.”

    No, FAT food is cheap food.

    The cheapest food in the supermarket comes from those middle aisles, where you find a lot of boxed and processed foods that are cheap specifically because they are processed into a box. As is alluded to in the last sentence in the article above, these processed foods are made with high-calorie junk (corn syrup and other refined corn products among them) that are used to sweeten foods up to make them taste better at the lowest possible cost. The very process of making them cheap and inexpensive turns them into fat foods.

    As your income goes up, you shop less in the middle aisles, and more on the perimeter of the stores, where you find fresh fruits, meats, and dairy. Healthier foods which are more expensive and are less available to families of low incomes.

    I do however agree that fast foods are also fat foods. They too are exceedingly processed, to try to make them taste sweeter and better, which converts them into much more unhealthy options. Sit-down restaurants, especially as you move away from chain restaurants, tend to use more fresh foods.

  • floodmouse

    Wouldn’t life be easier if you could just feed yourself out of a big bag of healthy, low-cost Purina people food? Of course it could never be that easy for non-carnivores. Most things really good for you can’t be processed into a bag. 😉

  • Alberto

    But the middle class folks ARE the new poor!

  • badnicolez

    The main reason poor people are obese is because sugar is cheap and fiber, fat and protein typically are not.

    Time for the government to stop subsidizing wheat, corn and soy, and start subsidizing fruit, vegetables, nuts and organic products.

  • Cathy

    A box of mac and cheese is fifty cents. A pack of hot dogs is a dollar or two. Add butter and milk, also still cheap ingredients. Combine them, and you have a dinner for 3-4 people as well as a foodstuff that kids like, for the price of a single McDonald’s hamburger.

  • Geack

    Seriously, with all the noise about fast food and obesity, no one had studied this before now? I just assumed that the rates of fast-food consumption had been shown to be highest among the poor before all the bloviating even started.

    We need to seriously revise how we deal with nutrition-science reporting in this country.

  • Geack

    I agree completely. A bag of rice is even cheaper pound-for-pound. And canned veggies are very cheap too. People don’t eat poorly because they can’t afford the alternative.

  • L

    Perhaps stress levels are the real problem to obesity rates.

  • Al

    Having lived on the border of a low-income neighborhood and shopped regularly in “their” grocery store, I’ve made some observations of my own. A woman with five children arrives at the register, food stamps in hand, with a cart stocked full of the most garbagey diet you can ever imagine. Hi-C, sugary cereals, prepackaged chicken nuggets, chips, every kind of horrible processed food you can imagine. You can’t tell me that this woman couldn’t have put back the pack of fruit drink (~$3/package) and picked up a bag of apples (in bulk, $4 for 8 lbs). Or replaced the sugary cereal ($3/box) with a canister of plain oats ($1.50 per canister). Or the chips ($3/bag) with a few sweet potatoes. Dried beans are cheap, so is rice, packaged chicken breast can be purchased on sale in bulk for $2/lb. People eat crap not because they can’t afford healthy food, but because crap food is easy to prepare, appeals to our tastes for sugar, fat, and salt, and, perhaps, people just don’t have the education about proper nutrition to realize that all this junk food is essentially poison to our (and our childrens’) bodies. It’s difficult to retrain your tastes to eat normal, healthy food as nature intended, and certainly even more difficult if the motivation isn’t there in terms of knowing (or caring about) the potential effects of your crappy diet.

    Now we’re blaming the problem on “rock bottom cheap, high calorie foods sold in grocery stores”……..Give me an example of these foods, and I’ll give you a healthy, cheap substitute (BEANS).

  • JanArrah

    Geack: First, because the idea that fast food is evil and destroying us all fits a template created and perpetuated by the media. They have to make that RIGHT, so they keep it up. Truth is, Fast food is NOT CHEAP. Even with dollar burgers, it’s pretty expensive to go out to eat especially if you look at places that AREN’T McDonalds. Heck, even Taco Bell, which is typically considered uber-cheap, has $2.00 tiny soft tacos. That’s not even looking at places like Arby’s or Zaxby’s that can cost you EASILY $10 for a single person.

    Second, with the poor getting things like food stamps (which we have a higher number than EVER before) and programs like WIC (Idk if that’s local or federal), there is no excuse. I have made $10 bucks stretch for a weeks worth of food before. I know it’s possible! The thing isn’t that it’s “Cheaper” to get processed foods than non-processed foods or that food with high fat content is cheaper, it’s seriously that people in lower income levels are making CHOICES about what they want to eat based on the fact that they typically get their food for free. So why not load up on sugary snacks that aren’t all that cheap (I think people that think these sugary foods are super cheap haven’t actually LOOKED at the in a long time).

  • Barry Johnstone.

    Am I mistaken in thinking that the USA is a heaven for good food?

  • Chris the Canadian

    Obesity is a function of our sedentary lifestyle. People are fat because people are lazy. They eat processed foods because they are prepared for them, easier to make, and don’t force people to spend time learning how to cook them. It’s easier to open a bag of chips than to cook a bowl of rice. Much easier to heat up a pizza pocket in a microwave than to cook a meal in the kitchen.

    The laziness continues away from the table too. Kids don’t go running around and playing outside as much anymore. They’d rather stay in and play video games and chat online with their friends. Kids don’t ride bike’s around as much, or play sports as much, or do anything physical nearly as much as even 15 years ago. It’s because they see their lazy parents and they pick up those lazy habits and turn into lazy people themselves. Want to stem the tide of obesity? Make it mandatory that everyone have an hour of excersize a day. Make it so that schools don’t take Physical Education out of the cirriculum and moreso, make it mandatory until the end of high school. Make owning a cellphone/blackberry/ipad/laptop etc require a minimum age limit. Force kids to get away from the technology they are using so they can invent technologies not yet discovered.

  • abaldwin360


    I’ll tell you what, I’m a single father with two teenage sons, I work a full time job, get home from work at 6 or 7 pm, and then still have helping the boys with homework, and fixing dinner for them.

    I often do buy boxed, canned or processed foods because I simply don’t have time to fix a meal from scratch. I will often do so on the weekends when I do have time, but during the week if I want to have dinner at a decent time, I can’t.

  • Scott

    Chris, I agree with you but I don’t like the way you worded your argument. Yes, people are lazy, but we have the same tendencies as people had fifty, a hundred, or a thousand years ago. That said, I am fine with you blaming obesity on people’s laziness just as long as you don’t indict them on it. The problem is more complex than that, and the solution has nothing to do with making people stop being lazy. It is a systems problem that stems from a lack of regulation over the food industry. I agree that more regulation is needed, but mandatory exercise and technology age limits aren’t feasible notions, though more physical education is entirely sensible. Were I to recommend a regulation, I would start by attacking the ambiguity over dietary servings. If you go buy a chocolate bars and read the label, it will say it contains three servings. Start requiring the food industry to package or sell non-bulk items in single serving sizes. They’ll either have to shrink the packaging or put the real caloric value on the label. Or better yet, survey Americans and find what the average serving size really is. Then make the food industry display that caloric value as well.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


80beats is DISCOVER's news aggregator, weaving together the choicest tidbits from the best articles covering the day's most compelling topics.

See More

Collapse bottom bar