Eating fast food is frequently blamed for damaging our health.
As nutrition experts point out, it is not the healthiest type of meal since it is typically high in fat and salt. More widely, it’s seen as a key factor in the growing obesity epidemic in the U.S. and throughout the world.
Because it’s considered relatively inexpensive, there’s an assumption that poor people eat more fast food than other socioeconomic groups – which has convinced some local governments to try to limit their access. Food journalist Mark Bittman sums up the sentiment succinctly:
“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 sample of random Americans. What we found surprised us: Poor people were actually less likely to eat fast food – and do so less frequently – than those in the middle class, and only a little more likely than the rich.
In other words, the guilty pleasure of enjoying a McDonald’s hamburger, Kentucky Fried Chicken popcorn nuggets or Taco Bell burrito 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
In retrospect, the fact that everyone eats fast food perhaps should not be that surprising.
There are rich and famous people, including President Donald Trump, who are also famous for 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 we all have 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 40’s and 50’s. 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.
We're all loving it
Interviews with thousands of Americans show that income level doesn't make a big difference in who eats fast food. The graph shows the share of respondents who reported eating fast food at least once during three one-week periods, based on their income decile (percentage of all U.S. household income).
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.
The graph shows how many times, on average, individuals in each income group ate fast food during the three weeks. Middle-income earners reported eating fast food more frequently than the very poor or very rich.