Who's Eating the Most Fast Food? Not Who You Think

by Paige Brettingen ; Updated February 26, 2018

The stereotype that fast food is the go-to meal for low-income Americans may, in fact, be just that — a stereotype — according to new research.

Read more: 11 of McDonald’s Biggest Diet Wreckers From Around the World

A study published in Economics & Human Biology found that those consuming the most fast food are primarily middle-class Americans, rather than those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

Researchers analyzed a cross-section of Americans born from 1957 to 1964 from different backgrounds who had been interviewed regularly since 1979. When asked how many times they ate food from a fast-food restaurant, middle-income earners averaged a little more than four meals over the course of three weeks. High-income respondents averaged three meals, and those from a low-income background averaged 3.7 meals.

So, in other words, we’re all indulging in fast food fairly equally.

And fast food’s “inexpensiveness” wasn’t the reason cited for its allure either. In fact, the economists who conducted the study point out that fast food is only inexpensive when compared to a full-service restaurant.

“The typical cost per meal at a fast-food restaurant — which the U.S. Census calls limited service — is over $8 based on the average of all limited service places,” economist and research scientist Jay L. Zagorsky and economics professor Patricia Smith wrote on CNN.com.

“Moreover, $8 is a lot for a family living under the U.S. 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.”

Instead, one of the main reasons people turn to fast-food is due to long work hours, say Zagorsky and Smith. They also determined that the most effective way to curb fast-food intake was by encouraging people to read ingredients first and understand what’s in the food.

These findings challenge the assumption that poorer people eat more fast food, which has shaped both legislation and infrastructure in the past.

In 2008, for example, Los Angeles banned new construction of fast-food establishments in Southeast Los Angeles because “fast-food businesses in low-income areas, particularly along the Southeast Los Angeles commercial corridors, intensifies socioeconomic problems in the neighborhoods and creates serious public health problems,” reported The New York Times.

If you have no option but to hit up the drive-thru after work, here are the 14 healthiest foods you can get in fast-food restaurants. Your health (and waistline) will thank you!

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What Do YOU Think?

Do these findings surprise you that socioeconomics might not be indicative of fast-food consumption? If you eat fast food, do you do so for convenience, cost or simply because you enjoy it? Tell us in the comments!