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The Drive-Through Middle Class: The Surprising Link Between Income and Fast-Food Eating

Middle-class families are more likely to eat fast food frequently than the poorest Americans.

It's trendy to blame fast food for the alarming obesity rate among poor Americans. But a new study shows that the largest population of eaters venturing out to Burger Kings, Chick-fil-As, and Taco Bells are those on the lower rungs of the middle class.

According to researchers from the University of California at Davis, the sweet spot for fast-food franchises are upwardly mobile consumers moving from the lowest income bracket to middle one. In a study of about 5,000 adults, DaeHwan Kim and J. Paul Leigh found that the relationship between fast-food eating and income looks less like a negative linear relationship—where the lower one's income, the more fast food they eat—and more like an "inverted U." Patronage of fast-food restaurants increases as families move out of the low-income bracket, peaks in the lower regions of the middle-income population, then declines after families begin to earn more than $60,000 annually.

The study relied on data from the mid-1990s, the most recent information available on the subject—but the researchers expect that the general patterns still hold today. “The relationship between poverty, obesity, and fast-food restaurant use is more complicated than people realize," Leigh says. "Fast-food restaurants aren’t the only factor contributing to low-income obesity.” That's partly because the poorest Americans have too little cash to catch the eye of the McDonald's marketing department. “McDonald’s and Burger King don’t cater to low-income families simply because they are not going to make that much money," Leigh said. "They’re targeting middle-income families. The results of the study make complete sense from a business standpoint."

The middle-class families who frequent the drive-through the most may have some money, but they tend to operate under a perpetual time crunch—less free time, more children, and little disposable income result in more quick trips to the Golden Arches. And they're paying for the meals out of their own pockets—Leigh attributes the lack of low-income patrons at fast-food restaurants partially to the fact that food stamps are not accepted at most fast-food locations.

But just because a family or individual is using food stamps at a grocery store doesn’t mean they truly have access to higher-quality foods. “There is plenty of food in grocery stores that’s full of fat and very cheap,” Leigh says. “If you’re interested in poverty and obesity then there are other ways to go about addressing it as opposed to saying that the fast-food restaurants are the only bad guys here.”

Photo via (cc) Flickr user busyPrinting

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