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We all want fries with that

Debunking myths about fast food
For richer or poorer, everyone eats fast food.

That’s what researchers from The Ohio State University and the University of Michigan-Dearborn found when analyzing survey responses of young baby boomers nationwide. Ohio State’s Center for Human Resource Research has maintained data for the U.S. Department of Labor since 1979 — surveying Americans on everything from work habits to health and nutrition.

Using that data, researchers reported findings that contradict common perceptions about who consumes fast food the most and why, said Jay Zagorsky, an economist and researcher at The Ohio State University. Here are five myths about fast food that this study busts:

Myth: Only poor people eat fast food.

Why it’s false: “There’s an assumption in the world, the myth is poor people eat fast food and rich wouldn’t touch the stuff,” Zagorsky said.

“The whole point of the research is everyone pretty much eats fast food. There are slight differences among rich, middle class and poor people. But in general, it’s something that’s eaten by everybody.”

Results showed that middle-income Americans were most likely to eat fast food.

Eighty percent of all people surveyed went to a fast food restaurant, he said. Of the richest people, 75 percent of them ate at fast food joints. “There’s a tiny difference,” Zagorsky said, “but it’s not like rich people don’t eat fast food. Not like they’re at zero or 10 percent.”

Myth: People eat fast food because they’re lazy.

Why it’s false: It’s actually those employed and working longer hours who are more likely to eat fast food.

“We took into account lots of other things: slight differences in age among people, marital status, living in cities, whether they smoke, whether they look at nutrition labels, whether they’re trying to exercise and diet, whether they’re working, how many hours they work, if they’re born in the United States, how many kids they have and all kinds of things,” Zagorsky said, “and we put all those into the various models to try to take other factors into account other than just income and wealth.”

What they discovered was the number of hours a person works has greater influence in determining whether that person eats fast food, he said.

“People working a lot of hours tended to report visiting fast food restaurants more often than not working or working fewer hours. Fast food, the idea is it is fast,” he said. “When you’re working, there is not much time to cook. Those who worked ate between 15 and 18 percent more fast food meals than non-workers.”

During the course of a year, working another 200 hours bumps up the number of fast food meals you eat by 1 percent.

There is a convenience factor, though. A rural family living farther away from fast food would be more expected to cook a meal at home than drive 30 minutes to a fast food chain, he said. Urban, single people who live closer to many restaurants are more likely to eat more fast food because of the ease of access.

Myth: People who are on a diet avoid fast food restaurants.

Why it’s false: Those people surveyed who said they were on a diet still went to fast food restaurants at the same frequency as before.

“Stating you’re on a diet doesn’t seem to mean anything,” he said. “There was almost no impact on the results. It doesn’t prevent you from walking through the door of a fast food restaurant. It may affect whether you order the ‘Super-Size’ or the regular Coke.”

Myth: It makes a difference that fast food restaurants put an emphasis on ‘healthy ingredients.’

Why it’s false: While claiming “made with real, white meat” does affect some people’s decisions, researchers found that people who look at ingredients eat fast food 20 percent less often than those who don’t read the labels.

“In simple terms, being conscious of what you’re going to consume reduces fast food intake,” he said. 

Myth: Movies like Supersize Me can’t be real. No one would ever eat fast food for all daily meals.

Why it’s false: A handful of people reported actually visiting fast food restaurants for three meals a day, seven days a week.

“There are people not on film or on camera who really do eat all their meals at a fast food restaurant,” Zagorsky said. “Maybe not continuously, but at least the survey week we’re asking about.”

Myth: It’s worthless for governments to try to regulate fast food consumption.

Why it’s false: It may not be entirely false actually.

But if policymakers are trying to adjust eating habits and health by regulating fast food, just looking at the “poor” neighborhoods isn’t a good strategy.

“This research suggests it’s not just poor people eating fast food, it’s a society-wide thing,” Zagorsky said. “If we’re not happy with fast food and its results, it’s a society-wide problem. Banning fast food in just poor neighborhoods would not be a way to fix the problem.”