Economics Professor Patricia Smith’s research looks at U.S. fast food consumption across socioeconomic groups

July 21, 2017

Research shows the frequency of fast-food consumption is about the same across socioeconomic groups, with the middle class eating the most.

Fast food research

With billions and billions served, people know fast food is a popular choice. And there’s an awareness that it’s not usually the healthiest option.

So, who’s eating it?

Economics Professor Patricia Smith and her research partner Jay Zagorsky, research scientist at Ohio State University's Center for Human Resources, discovered the answer.

“We all are,” Smith said.

Smith said this goes against a prevailing belief that lower income earners consumed fast food more often.

Looking at data collected nationwide, Smith and Zagorsky compared the number of fast food meals eaten during a period of three weeks over three years—one week in 2008, one week in 2010 and one week in 2012— to the household’s income.

Their study used data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, which has followed and questioned the same group of roughly 8,000 Americans since 1979. Participants are “baby boomer age.”

“We were a bit surprised. Often low-income neighborhoods have a higher density of fast food restaurants. And there is a link between obesity rates and lower income, particularly in women,” said Smith, whose research focuses on the relationships between health and socioeconomic status. “In general, poorer people have the poorest health rates and health gets better as we go up the socioeconomic ladder.”

Smith said fast food has taken a lot of the blame when it comes to obesity rates and poor health in general for people with lower incomes. “But, if that were the case, we’d see fast-food consumption consistently falling as we move up the socioeconomic ladder, but that’s not what we found,” she said, noting the survey looked at both wealth and income.

Overall, 79 percent of respondents ate fast food at least once during the three-week observation period and 23 percent ate three or more fast food meals during any one of the three weeks recorded in the study.

The number of fast-food meals eaten during all three years of the survey showed a similar pattern. The poorest 10 percent of respondents ate about 3.6 fast-food meals, compared to about 4.2 meals for middle-income people and three meals for the richest 10 percent of participants.

“Frequency of fast-food consumption and the number of fast-food meals have a slight bell curve. On average, there was one meal or less difference between all groups, with the middle class eating the most,” Smith said. “But whether it is three meals or four, all socioeconomic groups are still regularly consuming fast food.”

Smith and Zagorsky’s paper, “The association between socioeconomic status and adult fast-food consumption in the U.S.” has been published online in Economics and Human Biology’s and will appear in the journal’s printed November 2017 issue.

Even though income levels didn’t have much to do with how much people ate at the Golden Arches or other drive-thru type venues, the researchers did find one factor that mattered: The more hours worked, the more fast food people consumed.

Smith said moving forward, this finding could help determine how to encourage better eating for people in all socioeconomic groups.

“You can’t give people more time, but there are ways to make it easier and faster to get nutritious food,” Smith said. “With convenience being a driving force, we think making healthy food more available is key in healthier choices.”