NEW YORK (MainStreet) — It used to be that poor people were thin and malnourished. Now low-income Americans are more likely to be obese than the general population, and the popular narrative holds that this is due largely to a diet high in cheap fast food.
But that theory, while tidy and logical on the surface, does not seem to be borne out by the facts in one study.
Health economics researchers at the University of California-Davis looked at data from a mid-1990s survey of food intake patterns to get a sense of how varying income levels correlate with eating habits.
What it found was that, contrary to popular belief, poor people are not more likely than the general population to frequent fast-food restaurants. Rather, fast-food visits increase as income rises and don’t begin to tail off until you hit a household income of around $60,000 a year.
In other words, it’s actually the middle class that is most likely to hit up McDonald’s on a regular basis.
“There is a correlation between obesity and lower income, but it cannot be solely attributed to restaurant choice,” study author J. Paul Leigh says in a statement. “Fast-food dining is most popular among the middle class, who are less likely to be obese.”
The researchers do concede that using data from the mid-90s isn’t ideal, but said that this was the most recent national survey data available for their purposes.
So why are poor people more likely to be obese, if not because of fast food overload? While the researchers don’t offer any definitive answers in this particular study, they do suggest that the rising price of healthier food may be an issue.
“Pricing is critical to low-income families, and over the past 30 years the costs of less healthy options have dropped compared to healthier fare,” Leigh notes.
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