Fast food and income levels

by Lauren

The percentage of adults consuming fast food on a given day differs by family income level for 2013–2016.

This section is from the CDC study and I was surprised to learn that the numbers rose with income because I would have expected the opposite result.

The percentage of adults who consumed fast food increased with increasing family income level (Figure 3). Overall, 31.7% of lower-income (less than or equal to 130% of the federal poverty level [FPL]), 36.4% of middle-income (greater than 130% to less than or equal to 350% of FPL), and 42.0% of higher-income (greater than 350% of FPL) adults consumed fast food on a given day. A similar pattern was observed for both men and women. Within each income level, there was no significant difference in the percentage between men and women who consumed fast food.

I looked at the numbers in detail and I realized that I did not consider pizza to be fast food when I thought about my own household. If I consider pizza to be fast food, our numbers are also high because of the number of times we eat pizza at parties, meetings and just last minute dinners.

How many of you have similar results in your own families?

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70 thoughts on “Fast food and income levels

  1. That doesn’t really surprise me because the vast majority of my white collar coworkers get breakfast and/or lunch out nearly every single day. They are defining fast food fairly broadly I think – enough to include most of what people grab for coffee/breakfast/lunch, even if it is not McDonald’s/Chick-Fil-A. Various sub shops and build-a-salad/bowl places that are popular at lunch probably would count. Also – Starbucks. I have a large proportion of coworkers who get Starbucks every single morning.

    I generally only eat out once or twice a week total unless traveling. I eat breakfast at home & bring lunch from home most days. We very rarely get takeout. We eat out most Friday nights (sometimes DS choses take out for his weeks to chose).

    DS got a bonus 5-day weekend today because of the snow/wind. No power at his school. I was glad to have him help me shovel though. I’m supposed to leave for a quick work trip this afternoon – we will see if the plane makes it here…it’s pretty messy right now, but the snow and wind seem to have stopped.

  2. I would have expected the opposite result.

    That could hinge on your definition of fast food. If you include Starbucks, Chipolte, Panera, Pret, etc. it makes more sense.

  3. DH, myself and DS don’t bring food from home. We eat get our lunches from casual places and DS gets his from the school cafeteria. DH and myself usually get avoid the fast food type food but it’s still not home cooked. Our dinners are home cooked. Some weekends we may sushi or burgers. The inlaws as they have aged say that restaurant food doesn’t agree with them. They eat very light when we travel.

  4. @July – Well, yeah. Starbucks isn’t really any different from McDonald’s in the end, is it? I don’t really understand what the CDC was trying to find with this study though.

  5. Here’s the original study.

    https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/products/databriefs/db322.htm

    Fast-food consumption: For each food and beverage item that respondents reported consuming
    during their 24-hour recall, the participant is also asked about the source where they obtained
    those items. Food reported as “restaurant fast food/pizza” was considered fast food for these
    analyses.

    So there’s no definition; it’s entirely self-reported. If I ate at Texas de Brazil and decided to call it fast food, that counts. I mean it is pretty fast, but it’s not fast food.

  6. Well, yeah. Starbucks isn’t really any different from McDonald’s in the end, is it?

    I would expect the median income and education level of the median Starbucks patron to be higher than the median McDonald’s patron. In terms of food, at least in terms of lunch items, the Starbucks portions are much smaller.

    I don’t really understand what the CDC was trying to find with this study though.

    I bet the link between obesity and “fast food” is a lot weaker when you adjust for SES.

  7. “the Starbucks portions are much smaller”

    portions yes, nutrition quality????

    at least with Big Mac there is some protein,not just empty carbs.

  8. “I don’t really understand what the CDC was trying to find with this study though.”

    I’m guessing that they were trying to get numbers to prove that poor people are unhealthy because they have bad eating habits and resort to McD’s instead of soaking their own beans at home like good little poor people should. Perhaps the actual results can cut some of the holier-than-thou from we supposedly-health-conscious UMC types. I mean, it’s not like a Starbucks mocha-caramel frappa-licious whatever is any better for you than a Big Mac — and I’m not convinced that the Subway chicken bacon ranch is a significant improvement on either.

  9. I bet the link between obesity and “fast food” is a lot weaker when you adjust for SES.

    Well yeah, that has to be true, because obesity and SES track pretty well generally.

    Sometimes I wonder what the mechanism is. If you read Corporette, which is mostly high-income women, they sometimes talk about meals and they seem to eat a 4-ounce diet yogurt and are then simply stuffed. Of course obviously some of them are lying, but I wonder if appetite is somehow correlated to income? Yes, I know that’s a weird question. I know the correct answer is supposed to be food deserts, and the cheap price of Doritos vs. sustainably-raised fish, etc., but I do sometimes wonder.

  10. “bougie take out”

    Love that!

    I think I’m an outlier here in that I hardly ever get meals or drinks out. I used to eat out or get take out more when I was younger, but back then I was (1) less capable in the kitchen, (2) better able to burn calories, and (3) working in an office full-time. All of those things have changed over time, and my cooking and eating habits have changed accordingly.

  11. Big Mac: https://www.mcdonalds.com/us/en-us/about-our-food/nutrition-calculator.html — 540 cal, 28g fat, 25g protein.

    Starbucks frappa-whatever: https://www.starbucks.com/menu/drinks/frappuccino-blended-beverages/caramel-brulée-frappuccino-blended-crème#size=11071512&milk=67&whip=125 — 490 cal, 17g fat, 8g protein.

    Subway chicken bacon ranch: https://fastfoodnutrition.org/subway/chicken-bacon-ranch-melt-salad-includes-ranch-dressing — 510 cal, 38g fat, 30g protein.

    I don’t see a lot of qualitative difference between these three, except of course that most folks wouldn’t have the Starbucks as their primary meal. Personally, I’d rather just have the Big Mac and enjoy the delicious grilled sloppiness.

    (Note that I chose these three because the first two are the quintessential poor/rich choices, and the third is my family’s go-to fast-food option because it is perceived as healthier/lighter).

  12. portions yes, nutrition quality????

    I think Ada has said she’s never had a malnourished patient. “Nutrition quality” is just a lot of UMC nonsense. Sort of like breastfeeding – while there is a small benefit it’s vastly overhyped

  13. I think Ada has said she’s never had a malnourished patient.

    Well now wait a minute. Define your terms. I myownself have come up low on iron and B12. I’m not a starving Biafran baby, which is what you’re probably talking about, but people do wind up with certain nutritional deficiencies now and then.

  14. @RMS – Is disordered eating correlated to SES? I think it is, no? (I did not Google yet)

    I haven’t Googled either, but probably.

  15. If you read Corporette

    Which I flat out cannot. I have, over the years, read the comments here and there, and it is the most self-centered, immature, clueless, and yet also surprisingly nasty group of women. A million years ago when that blog started I thought it was exactly what professional women needed, but it has not evolved in terms of content or comments.

  16. @Lark – Corporette really is an example of the worst of the Internet. (I mean, it’s not 4Chan, but it is the worst that is somewhat aimed at “me”.)

  17. Even if Starbucks and pizza count as fast food, we don’t do much of it on a given day. We make our own coffee in the morning, and I get coffee from the office coffee maker during the day. My husband takes his lunch from home, as do the kids for the most part. On Fridays we get takeout, and that is where the definition of “fast food” gets hazy. If we get mapo tofu and Taiwanese beef shoulder with chiles from a Chinese restaurant, is that fast food? If we get pizza and a pasta dish from a local Italian place, is that fast food? How about supermarket sushi?

  18. but I wonder if appetite is somehow correlated to income?

    I bet it’s the Road to Wigan Pier explanation. An UMC person has an easier time eating brown bread and raw carrots because they have a lot of other pleasures in life. If you poor and don’t have that much going for you indulging in food has more appeal.

  19. I’d say I’m often one of the 42% (UMC+) folks who consumes “fast food” on any given day based on how they’ve defined fast food. I still get counted if I get my coffee (black, tyvm) from Dunkin’, Starbucks, Tim Hortons, McD’s and order nothing else (pretty often).

    Depending on how much my stomach is growling on any given day, I’m likely to decide some kind of typical fast food (McD, BK, Wendy’s) is what I need (vs only what I brought from home or already have stashed in my desk).. Particularly if the weather is nice. 10 nuggets for $1 (BK) or any size fries for $1 (Wendy’s) are pretty good draws.

    And, btw, it’s not just fast food that has high calorie/fat counts in a supposed serving size. Any sit-down place will have sky high numbers, too. Sure you can find the Kale + EVOO + Balsamic 100 calorie salad if you want, but I’ll fess up: (1) I don’t like Kale and (2) even if I did, that wouldn’t hold me thru the late afternoon doldrums.

    I think it’s spurious to be blaming obesity on only ‘fast food’. Unless someone makes quite the effort that 2000 calorie recommended daily amount is going to be blown by by almost everyone who eats what we consider normal food.

    Now, back to my homemade Thanksgiving turkey sandwich.

  20. “And, btw, it’s not just fast food that has high calorie/fat counts in a supposed serving size. Any sit-down place will have sky high numbers, too.”

    IME, sit down restaurants are worse. Much worse usually. And the fancy ones are probably even worse than some of the chains.

  21. We aren’t big consumers of food out of the home. We bring our lunches to work, pack meals for the boys, etc. We aren’t even Starbucks or Dunkin consumers really. But we do get McD’s for the boys once a week, and order out one night a week. For us, it’s more of a hassle to eat out with the kids than to just deal at home. Plus, thanks to Cooksmarts, we do eat a variety of food now.

    The NYT article spent some good time (given the length of the article) shaming the 20-39 yo set. As a member (barely) of that set, excuse me? Grr. I get all stabby when studies aren’t set up properly (I mean, if my tea at Starbucks is considered fast food…) and then use the study to shame a group of people. I have friends in that set who eat out 3-4 times per week. Guess what? It’s the only time their family is at the same table at the same time. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t tell them to spend more time together as a family and then shame them for doing so eating fast food, whatever the definition.

  22. I guess I eat fast food every day, in that I get a take-out salad for lunch 4 – 5 days/week. As a family we almost never get fast food together. We used to get pizza once/week, but our favorite pizza place went out of business and we haven’t found a replacement.

  23. I think the food options have expanded so much that these sorts of distinctions are now largely meaningless. Like Fred says, is “fast food”/takeout/delivery any better than eating in a sit-down restaurant? IME not at all; heck, at least the fast-food chains tend to post their calorie counts so I know what I’m choosing. And the fast food category now has a variety of healthy and unhealthy options — heck, even McD’s has salads now, and I’ve had some delicious options at health-food-focused chains when I’ve been traveling for work.

    And then even when we eat something we made at home, the high-growth area seems to be pre-made or partially-made options that allow us to get dinner on the table in just a few minutes — and those can range from something like grilled salmon and asparagus to the Banquet sausage gravy pot pie my Granny eats for breakfast (which is delicious, btw, but OMG talk about a heart attack on a plate).

    Focusing on “fast food” consumption as an indicator of healthy vs. unhealthy eating may have been accurate when I was growing up, but it seems about 20+ years out of date. In the end, it comes down to the quality and quantity of the food you choose to put in your mouth, regardless of where that food was prepared.

  24. I can’t judge anyone… I just put potato chips on a homemade chicken salad sandwich. I’m drinking water with it, does that count as healthy? Ha!

  25. Another place to pick up food is the grocery store hot buffets, pizza counter and the ever popular rotisserie chicken. The food varies in quality. Some dishes look oily and greasy but others less so. It seems like a popular option for single people looking for more home cooked meal like option.

  26. This + 1000 Focusing on “fast food” consumption as an indicator of healthy vs. unhealthy eating may have been accurate when I was growing up, but it seems about 20+ years out of date.

  27. There are so many factors – like LfB pointed out, to a large extent the calorie/macro-nutrients of many “fast food” items are not that far off. So, it partly depends on what you select – the Starbucks coffee of the day, black no sugar, no other stuff vs the floofy-drink of month trenta. In your mind you just had coffee, but in reality you consumed as few as 5 or as many as 500 calories. And, several places really hid “poor nutrition” in things like salads that look healthy.

    Appetite is affected by many things – from activity level to stress to medications, etc. Personally, I have an bell shaped eating curve response to stress – as stress starts to build, I start to eat, but then stress hits a certain point and I eat less, and less until I am hardly eating at all. That and self-reporting and working in places where appearance is IMPORTANT all affect real and reported appetite.

  28. We are eating more take out food now that our income is more comfortable and I am ok with spending more money. I guess our family follows the trend.

  29. I wonder how many people consider Blue Apron or Hello Fresh as “home cooked”. With the exception of the rarely used spice, vinegar or other condiment type item, I think these are much higher priced than if you bought and cooked it yourself. The meal prices are more along the lines of a “casual” dinner out.

    I wonder if time isn’t the bigger driving factor – home cooked meal – at least 1.25 hours to prep/cook/eat/clean-up vs. 30 minutes on up for a meal out, especially if it is take out and you call it in and pick it up along your normal commute or have it delivered.

  30. @Austin – I think the lines around “home cooked” have gotten pretty blurred. On the one hand, grocery stores and other food sellers are selling more and more convenient meal items – from meal kits to the whole freezer section of Trader Joe’s and the like to prepared food, etc. But then on the other side, you have the extremists who poo-poo anyone who used canned beans and doesn’t make their own stock or bake their own bread and make their own condiments. Those people drive me batshit.

    IMHO though, I would definitely classify Blue Apron as “home cooked”. You are washing & chopping all the vegetables yourself! It’s really just the shopping and recipe-picking that’s been outsourced. It certainly takes more work than a lot of things from the Trader Joe’s freezer section. From what I have heard, the Blue Apron meals are often also not quick at all.

    I think time is a definite factor, but that can be sticky. I have a whole arsenal of recipes that I can make in 30 minutes or less, and even the fast food drive through can take that long with travel time. But I have been building that list up in my head for years & years, and I also have been building my cooking/prep skills for long enough that I can do some things basically from muscle memory.

  31. My kids eat crappy school lunches (pizza, tacos, corn dogs, who knows) and for lunch on weekends, burritos/taquitos/sandwiches/mac and cheese are also common on the agenda. I’m not convinced a bean ‘n’ cheese burrito from the freezer is really different from one from Del Taco, nutritionally.

    Lots of nutrition standards involve what’s appropriate for middle aged adults and not whether a peanut butter triple decker sandwich before soccer practice is really a health issue. (High fat! high carb! But we have less than 30 minutes between getting off the bus and soccer practice departure, and they can make microwave burritos and sandwiches themselves.)

  32. I wonder how many people consider Blue Apron or Hello Fresh as “home cooked”.

    How could you not consider it home cooked? They don’t do any prep work or apply heat to any item.

  33. High fat!

    Fat is good for you. Especially the plant based fat in peanuts. I’ll give you the carbs tough.

  34. WCE – your kid will run off all those carbs and fats by the time practice is over.

    Austin – I too categorized Blue Apron and the ilk as “home cooked”. If I didn’t, then Peapod and Amazon’s grocery delivery would be considered take out as well. Because that’s all Blue Apron does – send the food to your door.

    On timing – Cooksmarts meals are not that quick. If you do the weekend prep you can definitely save some time. But if we have a quick night (like we will on Thursday), I shove chicken nuggets in the boys’ faces, defrost a smoothie for them (they need veggies, right?), and call it good. The adults will eat something after the boys go to bed and it will usually be quick, like pasta or defrosted leftovers.

    So, yes cranky NYT people… if you have busy schedules fast food is definitely a lifesaver.

  35. In honor of my low iron and B vitamins, I have just cooked and eaten three ounces of calf liver. Oh my god that stuff is gross, even buried under Sriracha sauce.

  36. In honor of my low iron and B vitamins, I have just cooked and eaten three ounces of calf liver.

    I’m guessing you don’t like clams? They have sky high levels of iron and B12.

  37. A half dozen cooked clams has only 166 calories but supplies 40 times the required daily amount of vitamin B12.

    For instance, a 3.5-ounce (100-gram) serving of clams may contain up to 28 mg of iron, which is 155% of the RDI (3).

  38. In honor of my low iron and B vitamins, I have just cooked and eaten three ounces of calf liver.

    Ya know, they have pills with iron and B vitamins. Liver….shudder….

  39. Oddly, I love raw oysters and hate cooked oysters, while at the same time disliking raw clams but loving cooked clams.

  40. Cassandra, I know, but every now and then I get pulled into the Totebaggy thing of getting my nutrition from food instead of pills. It’s actually pretty stupid; pills are great.

  41. Rhett – that doesn’t make if low carb. It might make the ratio of protein/b12/iron to carb higher, but it doesn’t make it low carb.

  42. We eat a lot of “fast food” according to this study because at least one of us gets a drink from Starbucks almost every weekday. I meet my friends at Panera once in a while, and we never bring lunch when we’re working in the city. We almost always get lunch from one of those chopped salad places, Pret, Chipotle or local NY chains. We also have take out pizza about once a week.
    We generally make healthy choices at these places because we eat a lot of salads with dressing on the side.

    I just noticed there is a fairly new Chick fil a across from Grand central. When I meet my girlfriends we tend to go to a local chain -Hale and Hearty because they have custom salads and soups. I have a few work girlfriends that I’ve been eating lunch with for almost 30 years, and we’ve probably had 100s of lunches from H & H.

  43. “Cassandra, I know, but every now and then I get pulled into the Totebaggy thing of getting my nutrition from food instead of pills.”

    RMS — I had a Vitamin D deficiency. I started taking Vitamin D tablets. The deficiency went away! Take the pills. Life’s too short to eat food that makes you gag.

  44. I had a Vitamin D deficiency. I started taking Vitamin D tablets. The deficiency went away!

    Yabbut…the studies don’t show that supplementation actually solves the health issues in the same way that sunshine does…[she trailed off]

  45. We don’t eat fast food very often. All four of us bring our lunch every day. We go out to eat about once a week. We’ll get take out or delivery about once a month. DS goes to starbucks a couple of times a week, and has been picking up his dinner after work sometimes if he didn’t want what we had.

  46. I got my annual decaf salted caramel mocha last week. I get a short and have about 1/3 the pumps (if it says 2 pumps I ask for 2/3 of a pump. Yes, I’m THAT WOMAN). Otherwise if I’m at Starbucks I’ll have 2 sips of DH’s drink and call it good, or I get regular coffee.

    RMS, I agree, take the pills!. I don’t get enough fiber so I take fiber. Although I do love clams!

  47. My son’s McD’s pancakes and after-basketball-Taco Bell alone move us far up the chart.
    I’m not clicking past the paywall, still need to go back and read comments. I see that they have a wide definition of “fast food”, but I’m also curious re what frequency is required to be counted as one who eats fast food or does not.

    Once you get past the dollar menu, fast food isn’t cheap. When I get my son hotcames and a large OJ st McD’s, I pay over $5. That is several times what the meal would cost at home (where most of the cost would be the OJ).

    An aside to Meme on the teens-entering-the-wild-world-of-dating-need-rules thing. The girlfriend’s family had been staying somewhere temporarily while they looked for a home. They just moved to a place an hour away, out in an economically depressed area known for problems of substance abuse and KKK/Nazi terrorists. He went to visit Sunday, was told to be home by 8. I got a text around that time, expected “I’m late but leaving now”. I stead it was “can I spend the night?” Over the next 45 min, he gave me every excuse in the book why he should be permitted to do so (including that school was a party, not classes the next day—news to me). He finally agreed to come home, and 20 min later I got a text saying he was partway home. At 10 I learned he was still there. I was livid, but also felt helpless. He went beyond the book, accusing me of being racist (her family is Arab) and anything else he could throw my way. After a long time, he finally agreed to come up. I was honestly surprised around 11:00 to hear his key in the lock. I’m honestly happily baffled. I have no punishments to hold over his head, and short of showing up at their house (or maybe the wrong house first), I had no way to make home come home, but he did. Late, and I was frazzled, so he didn’t obey perfectly, but it still drove home to me how much they need rules.

  48. @ saacnmama – is he driving himself? Our rule growing up was that if you broke curfew, you didn’t have access to a car for a while.

    Our parents didn’t give us a set curfew, we set it ourselves each time, but woe to the child who wasn’t home when he/she said he would be.

  49. “Our rule growing up was that if you broke curfew, you didn’t have access to a car for a while.”

    +1. @Saac, do you think he would hear a logic-based argument (now that he has calmed down, because of course in the moment he would not). A/k/a “My job is to keep you safe until you are out on your own. You are very mature and have very good judgment, so I have been giving you lots of freedom because I trust you to recognize what is safe and what is not. But what you did last night was not safe — you are a black man visiting a poor area known for its racism, which puts you at risk from both the cops and the citizens. If you want all the freedom I have been giving you, you need to manage it responsibly — which means leaving an area like that when you say you will, meeting your curfew, and never, ever, under any circumstances lying to me about where you are or what you are doing. Because if you cannot use good judgment to keep yourself safe, I am going to need to step in and find ways to do it myself, starting with taking away the car keys. I do NOT want to do that, but I will if I have to, because keeping you safe is my #1 job, even when it makes you mad.”

    Honestly, I don’t care so much about the whining, excuse-making, etc.; you and I both know that some kids just vent verbally and the words don’t actually mean anything, they’re just a way to express strong emotions. But lying to your face about where he was and what he was doing? That is unacceptable in any situation, much less a situation where you were legitimately worried about his safety. If DD did that, all holy hell would rain down on her. And, yeah, then she would pitch a fit and yell and scream at me and cry and guilt me and argue ceaselessly and generally made my life miserable. But she would not, under any circumstances, continue to have access to her car or that level of freedom until she demonstrated to me that I could trust her again.

  50. The other thought that occurred to me is that you should probably have a direct line to her parents, so in that situation you could have called them directly and told them his continued presence at their house is in direct disobedience to your request he come home.

  51. Saac, I’m really glad he came home that night. I think a lot of kids try to stretch curfews and/or beg to stay out later. The use of car is probably one of the best tools that you have ti work with as a parent.

    Is she out of the HS now that she moved an hour away?

  52. @saac – you have so many levers. Spending money, data caps on mobile devices, access to car, turning off late night calls and texting, etc. I found technology to be a useful disciplinary tactic. Do not let this first big event go by without a consequence. He’s testing you. And since he likely endangered himself, you are completely justified. Also, he worried you out of your mind. That alone is worthy of consequence.

  53. “Also, he worried you out of your mind. That alone is worthy of consequence.”

    Yes. This is a chance, after he’s calmed down, to point out that nothing he does is in a vacuum, and his decisions have consequences beyond to himself, and he needs to consider those consequences, e.g., the worry he caused you.

  54. Saac – kudos to you for keeping your cool. I think Laura’s “speech” is a good one.

  55. Saac, I think it’s important to not uncouple the privilege from the responsibility. If he wants the adult privilege of visiting a girlfriend at her home and getting there autonomously, he comes home as agrees, checks in when he gets there, or whatever else you request. If he is not ready for that responsibility, he’s not ready for the privilege and they have to either hang out at your home or he has to be driven and picked up by you. I think every new bit of adult freedom should be accompanied by higher expectations of responsible adult behavior. Even if he’s in a perfectly safe area he needs to honor agreements or commitments he’s made to you. And kudos for not blowing up when he walked in the door.

  56. “I think every new bit of adult freedom should be accompanied by higher expectations of responsible adult behavior. ”

    Absolutely. This is a great line.

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