The heaviest QSR users are not low-income consumers, as widely believed, but rather those in the middle-class. According to a new study released by UC Davis and published in "Population Health Management," the correlation between obesity and lower income goes beyond restaurant choice.

"Fast-food dining is most popular among the middle class, who are less likely to be obese," said J. Paul Leigh, professor of public health sciences at UC Davis and senior author of the study.

For the study, Leigh and co-author DaeHwan Kim, who are both specialists in health economics, compiled data from the 1994 to 1996 Continuing Survey of Food Intakes by Individuals and the accompanying Diet and Health Knowledge Survey.

The information, pulled from a sample of nearly 5,000 Americans, included food consumption patterns and restaurant visits, as well as household income, race, gender, age and education level.

Results showed that full-service restaurant visits increased as income increased.

Additionally, quick-service visits rose along with annual household income up to $60,000. Income beyond that level showed a decrease in QSR visits.

According to Leigh, the middle class demographic is attracted to QSR options because of their convenient locations and wide range of products.

"Low prices, convenience and free toys target the middle class -- especially budget-conscious, hurried parents -- very well," he said.

The study also revealed:

  • Men were more likely than women to go to both QSR and full-service restaurants;
  • People with more education were more likely to go to full-service restaurants; and
  • People who worked more hours were more likely to go to both QSR and full-service restaurants.

Notably, the most recent data available on the subject came from the mid-1990s and income levels have changed considerably since. However, Leigh believes that dining-out patterns would be similar if more current data was available.

Because of this research, the author suggested that policymakers blame more than the restaurant industry for the obesity epidemic. He anticipates a follow up study on the effects of food pricing and choices.

"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 said. "One potential way to encourage healthier eating could be to charge taxes that increase based on the number of calories in food. Proceeds from the taxes could then be used to subsidize and reduce the costs of healthy foods."

The research was funded in part by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.

Read more about trends and statistics.

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