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A recent study from UC Davis dispels the erroneous assumption that America’s poor dine regularly and more frequently at fast-food restaurants, which translates into higher obesity rates.

The new UC Davis national study shows that fast-food dining becomes more common as earnings increase from low to middle incomes, adding doubt to the popular notion that fast food is responsible for higher rates of obesity among the poor.

“There is a correlation between obesity and lower income, but it cannot be solely attributed to restaurant choice,” said J. Paul Leigh, professor of public health sciences at UC Davis and senior author of the study, which is published online in Population Health Management. “Fast-food dining is most popular among the middle class, who are less likely to be obese.”

Leigh and co-author DaeHwan Kim used data from the 1994 to 1996 Continuing Survey of Food Intakes by Individuals and the accompanying Diet and Health Knowledge Survey.

Information was gathered on nearly 5,000 people nationally, including restaurant visits, restaurant dining habits, income, race, gender, age and education, which was compared with demographic variables such as household income, race, gender, age and education.

They found fast-food restaurant visits rose along with annual household income up to $60,000, but as income increased beyond that level, fast-food visits decreased in favor of increased visits at full-service restaurants, which involve a range of food choices and sit-down service.

Leigh explained that the fast-food industry attracts the middle class by locating restaurants right off freeways in middle-income areas and by offering products that appeal to a large proportion of Americans.

“Low prices, convenience and free toys target the middle class — especially budget-conscious, hurried parents — very well,” said
Leigh, who suggests policymakers and researchers look beyond restaurant type for reasons for and solutions to the obesity epidemic.

Additional correlations revealed in the study included:

* Men were more likely than women to go to both fast-food and full-service restaurants.

* People with more education were more likely to go to full-service restaurants.

* People who worked more hours were more likely to go to both fast-food and full-service restaurants.

* Smokers were more likely to go to fast-food rather than full-service restaurants.

Food Deserts

Although the current study doesn’t completely absolve fast-food’s contribution to obesity among the poor, as Times writer Meredith Melnick notes, the study didn’t take into consideration what people ate outside of restaurants.

As Melnick points out, “It’s well established that low-income neighborhoods tend to be food deserts — where fresh, whole foods are scarce and where the bulk of available food is the high-fat, high-sugar stock of convenience stores. That type of environment is thought to contribute to unhealthy eating and weight gain.”

“It would be a big mistake to look at the results of this report and say the environments people live in don’t matter, because they do,” said Micah Weinberg, a senior policy adviser who works on public health issues.

Poor Americans Cannot Afford Fast-Food

A recent Gallup Poll found nearly 20 percent of Americans say they’ve had trouble putting food on the table in the past 12 months, up from nine percent in 2008.

It’s unlikely poor families struggling to feed family members can afford to dine at McDonald’s where the average cost is almost $30 to feed a family of four.

Although three U.S. states — Michigan, Arizona and California — permit food stamps to be used in fast-food restaurants, families on food stamps (now at an all-time record high) would run out of money and starve if they regularly ate fast-food.

Op-Ed columnist Mark Bittman with the New York Times contrasts the nearly $30 McDonald’s meal to a dinner that serves from four to six people consisting of a roasted chicken with vegetables, and a simple salad for about $14, or a meal of rice and canned beans with bacon, green peppers and onions for four people at about $9.

The Huffington Post reports Americans’ incomes have declined more since the recession’s end than during the downturn. According to an American Pulse survey, 9 in 10 Americans don’t anticipate receiving a raise high enough to compensate for the rising cost of food and fuel.

Poverty Rate Higher Than Official Record

Poverty is on the rise in America, and even higher than previously recorded. The number of Americans in poverty was thought to have jumped to 46.2 million, but the U.S. Census Bureau’s alternative Supplemental Poverty Measure released this week shows that 49.1 million Americans were poor in 2010, more than the 46.6 million using the official definition of poverty.

A Pew Hispanic Center report released Tuesday indicates that, “compared with the official measure, SPM figures released by the Census Bureau show a higher national poverty rate for 2010, 16.0%, compared with the official poverty rate of 15.2%.”

US Hunger Rate 3X Higher Than China

According to Gallup, Americans are now three times more likely than the Chinese to lack the means of feeding their families. Gallup found that 19 percent of Americans worried about being able to feed themselves or their families, compared to only 6 percent of Chinese.

From September 2008 to September 2011, the proportion in the U.S. who said they had enough money to buy food for themselves and their families declined from 81.1 percent to 80.1 percent.

Patrick Martin at WSWS writes: Although China has more than four times the population of the United States, the absolute numbers of hungry people are nearly the same: just under 80 million for China, more than 60 million in America. The similarity is particularly stark given that the United States is the world’s biggest producer and exporter of food.

Martin notes the US poverty rate has increased for four consecutive years. The absolute number of those in poverty is far greater than in 1965, when the Democratic administration of Lyndon Johnson launched its “war on poverty.”

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Spence Cooper
Inquisitive foodie with a professional investigative background and strong belief in the organic farm to table movement. Author of Bad Seeds: A FriendsEAT Guide to GMO's. Buy Now!
Spence Cooper