Food Policy

The Truth About Who Really Eats Fast Food

May 15, 2017

Earlier this month, researchers at the Ohio State University’s Center for Human Resource Research released the results of a study they’d been conducting since 2008 to determine who, exactly, eats fast food. The very term “fast food,” as it’s deployed in an American context, is loaded; beyond being cheap, easy, and nutrient-parched, it’s inextricable from imaginings about class in this country. The study’s most compelling takeaway? Among American baby boomers, there's little variance in fast food consumption habits across socioeconomic strata.

Researchers surveyed 8,000 people from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, a cohort of baby boomers who'd been studied regularly since 1979, asking them how much fast food—McDonald’s, KFC, Taco Bell, or Burger King, specifically—they ate over the course of a week at three separate time periods: 2008, 2010, and 2012. All respondents were in their 40s or 50s at the time of the survey. Researchers segmented respondents into 10 groups by income. The findings:

  • 79% of respondents, across all income brackets, consumed fast food at least once in those weeks. 23% ate three or more fast food meals in that time period.
  • 80% in the lowest income bracket ate fast food at least once during the study period, compared to 85% of people in the middle income bracket and 75% in the highest.
  • Respondents in the lowest income bracket ate 3.6 fast food meals on average over that period, compared to 4.2 in the middle group and 3.0 in the highest.

Some of the respondents traveled between income groups over the years, but the study found that their consumption habits regarding fast food remained relatively static. What drew respondents to fast food was, more often than not, a lack of leisure time that led to quick and hasty decisions around food.

There are obvious constraints to this study, acknowledged by those who conducted it. For one, the study didn’t go as far to ask what, precisely, respondents consumed when they went to these eateries, especially as some have adopted a nominally health-conscious approach to what they put on their menus. At the very least, the head researcher, Jay Zagorsky, is hopeful that findings like these will help shape policy regarding how to curb obesity in this country more rigorously.

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In other words, the work to broaden and enrich how we talk about fast food, and how policy gets shaped around it, doesn’t end with this study. It’s not exactly news that fast food, and the way it's so often framed in this country, is classed: a gravitation towards fast food is associated with the poor and destitute, of economic hardship that gives way to desperation. Consider this myth challenged.

Read the full study, “The association between socioeconomic status and adult fast-food consumption in the U.S.,” here.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • carol
  • Greg Olsen
    Greg Olsen
  • Ross
  • BerryBaby
  • Whiteantlers
Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.


carol May 18, 2017
I'm certain if they had included pizza from a fast food chain it would have been significantly higher. There are so many other fast food chains that aren't included here. Seems like a arbitrary selection.
Greg O. May 18, 2017
Imagine the numbers if they told the truth!
Ross May 17, 2017
I hate fast food and average it about 3 times a year. But if you are including Starbucks and Dunkin donuts it goes up to about once a week.
BerryBaby May 15, 2017
To really find out who eats at fast food places, go stand in their line/ lobby and look around.
702551 May 17, 2017
Sorry to anyone else who responds, but this is the only correct answer.

The people who eat fast food are the ones who stand in line, pay for it, and eat it.

Individual anecdotes about whether or not you (or anyone else) eats its is irrelevant.
Whiteantlers July 31, 2017
Oh cv, sorry to destroy your delusion, but you are so in love with your own words it is frightening/laughable. And my opinion is the only correct one. : )
Whiteantlers May 15, 2017
I'm a Baby Boomer and I don't eat at McDonald's, Burger King, In and Out or any other fast food place. It's not out of snobbishness; I just don't care for the food. I do love a good burger and there are plenty of regular bars and restaurants in my city to satisfy my burger and fries needs and I can have booze with my food.

When I was moving cross country, I did have breakfast at large fast food chains and small (indie) fast food greasy spoons for the sake of convenience. With 4 cats in carriers in the cab of the rental moving van, I did not have time or leisure to to find a fine dining establishment for a long, leisurely breakfast.
Khalid S. May 15, 2017
Interesting, though I think a better understanding can come from seeing who avoids fast food. Essentially who "doesn't" eat it.