Who’s Eating Junk Food? Probably Not Who You Think

Last Update: June 3, 2020

One of the loudest arguments for restaurants and food companies to improve the nutritional quality of their offerings goes something like this: The artificially low cost of junk foods make them especially attractive to low-income Americans, who eat worse than those in the middle and upper classes.

It’s an idea that is often communicated, implicitly or overtly, by news media and even some food and nutrition writers. Celebrated food columnist Mark Bittman, formerly of the New York Times, has even suggested this, writing that “[J]unk food is cheaper when measured by the calorie, and that this makes fast food essential for the poor because they need cheap calories.”

Well, here’s the truth: Just because a person’s wages increase doesn’t mean they will eat less junk food, or give less of it to their kids.

A new study from the Centers for Disease Control confirms what previous research has indicated: Fast-food intake is not relegated solely, or even mostly, to low-income Americans. The new study looked at children’s and teens’ fast food consumption in terms of percent of calories consumed in 2011 and 2012, breaking it down even further by their family’s income as it relates to the United States poverty level.

In terms of just how much fast food American kids are consuming, the results were utterly unsurprising. Junk food comprises no less than 10 percent of kids’ daily diets, on average, with teens eating fast food as much as 18 percent of the time.

What will be surprising for some is who is eating the majority of the fast food. The study actually found that kids from families of all income levels consume junk food at basically the same rate, with poor children eating a little less than children from middle and upper-income families.

“It’s the poorest kids that tend to get the smallest share of their daily energy intake from Big Macs, Whoppers, Chicken McNuggets, and French fries,” Roberto Ferdman pointed out in the Washington Post.

This isn’t the first study to suggest that as incomes rise, so does the frequency of fast-food meals. A 2011 report out of University of California-Davis found that fast food is actually most popular for those with middle incomes, rather than lower incomes, and that Americans with higher annual incomes (sometimes between $80,000 and $90,000) make up most of the business at the drive-thru window.

What does this tell us? A few things. First, don’t make premature judgments and understand where the information you’re getting comes from—especially as it relates to the lives of families from whom you may be culturally or geographically separated. Poor people do not eat more fast food, and that myth has, sadly, been used to demonize low-income families even further and justify the reduction of nutritional benefits on which the working poor depend.

Most importantly, however, the CDC and UC Davis studies again show just how far-reaching our national eating disorder really is. As much as pundits would like to relegate it to a certain class of citizens, we really can’t. The problem is with all of us. We all need to eat better.

Photo credit: Dawn Loh via Flickr

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Steve Holt

Steve Holt's stories about food, nutrition and food politics are found at Civil Eats,, Boston Magazine, and elsewhere. He's been featured in the Best Food Writing anthology. Follow his tweets and Instagrams @thebostonwriter.

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