Fast-food most popular among middle class

November 17, 2011

A new national study of eating out and income shows that fast-food dining becomes more common as earnings increase from low to middle incomes, weakening the popular notion that fast food should be blamed 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.”

In conducting the study, Leigh and co-author DaeHwan Kim, specialists in health economics, used data from the 1994–1996 Continuing Survey of Food Intakes by Individuals and the accompanying Diet and Health Knowledge Survey. The nationally representative sample of nearly 5,000 people in the United States included data about food consumption patterns, including restaurant visits, over two nonconsecutive days, which was compared with demographic variables such as household income, race, gender, age, and education.

They found that eating at full-service restaurants, which involve a range of food choices and sit-down service, followed an expected pattern: as income rose, visits increased. In contrast, eating at fast-food restaurants, characterized by minimal table service and food preparation time, followed a different pattern. Fast-food restaurant visits rose along with annual household income up to $60,000. As income increased beyond that level, fast-food visits decreased.

In addition the study showed that men were more likely than women to go to both fast-food and full-service restaurants and that people with more education were more likely to go to full-service restaurants.

The study was limited by the fact that the data came from the mid-1990s, the most recent information available on this subject. Although incomes have changed considerably since then, Leigh believes that the eating-out patterns found in this study would still hold if more up-to-date data were available. Based on the findings, the researchers suggest that policymakers and researchers look beyond restaurant type for reasons for and solutions to the obesity epidemic. Leigh will study the effects of food pricing on food choices.

Press release