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The fast food industry gets shouldered with a lot of the blame for the rising obesity rates among lower-income demographics. But an upcoming study suggests middle-income Americans actually visit quick serves more often than their lower-income counterparts.
The study, "Are Meals at Full-Service and Fast-Food Restaurants 'Normal' or 'Inferior'?," found that visits to quick serves rose with household income until the $60,000 income level, at which point visits started to decrease as income rose.
Meanwhile, visits to full-service restaurants consistently rose with income level.
J. Paul Leigh, professor of public health sciences at the University of California Davis and senior author of the study, says these results suggest many factors are at play in the obesity epidemic among lower-income Americans.
“It’s wrong to say that fast food restaurants are solely responsible for the obesity epidemic among poor people,” Leigh says. “I think they contribute, but to say they’re the sole ones responsible and that we need to target them is, I think, misguided.”
Leigh says critics should turn their attention away from quick serves and onto government programs. He suggests multiple actions government could take to fight obesity, such as altering food-stamp regulations to encourage healthier food purchases or offering greater subsidies for healthy foods.
There is, however, a caveat to the study; the data used for the study was gathered between 1994 and 1996.
Leigh says the dated data, which was compiled for “Continuing Survey of Food Intakes by Individuals” and the accompanying “Diet and Health Knowledge Survey,” was used because there is no other data available that measures fast food visits by variables such as household income, race, gender, age, and education
“We wanted more detailed data on the number of visits, not on dollars spent,” he says, adding that he doesn’t believe the time difference affects the study’s results. “I don’t see that there’s been a big change in the American landscape [since then] as far as these patterns.”
The study found other notable trends, including the facts that people with more education were more likely to visit full-service restaurants; people who worked more hours were more likely to visit all types of restaurants; and smokers were more likely to visit quick serves instead of full-service establishments.
The study’s results, Leigh says, suggest that quick-serve companies may want to revisit their site-selection processes.
“If you’re a McDonald’s or Burger King, do you really want to locate your restaurants in the poorest areas?” he says. “How much money are you going to make? It doesn’t make sense.”
The study, which was coauthored by DaeHwan Kim, will be published online in Population Health Management in December.
By Sam Oches