That’s what a lot of people tend to do when they think of food.
And it doesn’t seem to matter how big their paychecks are.
Jay Zagorsky, PhD, a research scientist at The Ohio State University’s Center for Human Resource Research, and Patricia Smith, PhD, of the University of Michigan-Dearborn, looked at the eating habits of 8,000 people.
They analyzed the data and concluded that eating fast food is not limited to people with low incomes.
The researchers used data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY), which has surveyed the same group of randomly selected Americans since 1979.
The Ohio State’s Center for Human Resource Research oversees he NLSY.
“People talk about the ‘freshman 15’ [the belief that a college student will put on 15 pounds during their freshmen year],” Zagorsky told Healthline. “They assume that, but studies have shown it’s not correct.”
From there, it was a hop, skip, and a jump to assumptions about fast food, notably the belief that people with low incomes eat more of it.
“It’s not true,” said Zagorsky.
Junk food science
In the study, Zagorsky and Smith used data from people who were asked about their fast food consumption in the 2008, 2010, and 2012 surveys.
Participants, who were in their 40s and 50s at the time of the surveys, were asked how many times in the past seven days they had eaten “food from a fast-food restaurant such as McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut, or Taco Bell.”
The results were compared with the participants’ answers to questions about their wealth and income.
While there were some slight differences in how wealth and income correlated to fast-food consumption, Zagorsky said the results were similar.
During any one of the weeks recorded in the study, about 79 percent of respondents reported eating fast food at least once, and 23 percent ate three or more fast-food meals.
“Pretty much everybody eats fast food,” he concluded. “There was not much difference by income.”
“If you became richer or poorer, it didn’t change how much fast food you ate,” Zagorsky added.
He said that unlike other studies, this one distinguished between wealth and income. (Wealth is defined as one’s assets, such as a home and car. Income is what one earns.)
In the cohort Zagorsky examined — people in their 40s and 50s — the results were a bit surprising.
“This is a period of high income and high wealth. They are acquiring assets and in their peak earning years,” he said. “They were more likely to eat fast food.”
Why we eat fast food
Zagorsky attributed the finding to the fact many participants eat fast food because it’s convenient.
In fact, one hallmark of the people who ate fast food frequently was their lack of time.
He acknowledged one of the weaknesses of the study was that researchers did not know what people ordered.
Was it a chicken salad or a triple bacon cheeseburger? Or just a cup of coffee?
Since Zagorsky found that income was not linked to fast food consumption, what does that say about attempts to curb the number of fast food establishments in lower income neighborhoods, as Los Angeles did in 2008?
Michael Bader, an urban sociologist at American University who studies how fast food affects neighborhoods, told the Los Angeles Times in 2015, “My research has found banning fast food misses the root cause of unhealthy communities.”
Fast food as comfort food
That’s a point of view likely to resonate with John Douillard, DC, CAP.
Douillard is not your typical nutritionist. In fact, he’s not a nutritionist at all, but rather a crusader against processed food.
The author of “Eat Wheat,” Douillard believes the problem with fast food is not who is eating it, but its very existence.
He says that in the process of creating food that is shelf-stable, society has removed all the healthful elements from it.
For example: It takes time for the microbial organisms in the gut to do their jobs.
“But everyone’s in a hurry. They want drive-by food. They watch their cell phone while they’re eating. They sit on [uncomfortable] metal chairs,” he said in an interview with Healthline. “When people have high stress, they crave comfort tastes.”
“We are addicted, and we can get it on demand,” he added.
According to Douillard, fast food is comfort food.
“In addition to sweet, salty, and sour, the comfort tastes include bitter, astringent, and pungent, which are usually missing,” he said.
Responding to the current crusade against wheat, Douillard scoffs, “The problem is what we do to wheat.”
“Ancient humans consumed 100 grams of fiber [per day]. We eat 20,” he said.
In essence, he said, being American is a risk factor for heart disease.