ATLANTA -- More than a third of U.S. adults eat what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention terms fast food on “any given day,” according to a new study. But who eats fast food is more telling.
Fast-food consumers are more likely to be younger and wealthier. They’re more likely to be male and African-American, and they like lunch more than any other daypart.
The study analyzed eating habits between 2013 and 2016. Researchers asked consumers whether they ate fast food over the previous 24-hour period. For the study, pizza is included in the fast-food definition.
Such studies can be flawed—consumers, for instance, may underreport their fast-food eating habits or they don’t recall what they ate.
Yet the results provide some interesting findings about who eats fast food, and when.
They have higher incomes
Arguably the most surprising finding in the study is that the higher the income, the more likely a person is to eat from a quick-service restaurant (QSR).
Only 31.7% of adults in households at 130% of the federal poverty level or less, which for a family of four would be $31,590, reported eating fast food on any given day. But 36.4% of Americans making 130% to 350% of the federal poverty level ($31,590 to $85,050 for a family of four) eat fast food on any given day. And 42% of those making more than 350% of the federal poverty level eat fast food.
For all the surprise, however, consumers with higher incomes have more money they can use to eat out. And the foodservice industry has spent much of the past decades giving wealthy people reasons to dine out, with concepts like Shake Shack, Sweetgreen, Chipotle Mexican Grill and Panera Bread, among others, catering to people with higher incomes.
Older people eat out less
Age is another major factor in whether someone eats out a lot—arguably the single, biggest factor, the CDC said. Nearly 45% of Americans age 20 to 39 eat fast food on any given day. By the time they’re 60 and over, however, that percentage plunges to 24.1%.
As consumers age, they retire and eat at home more often. And older consumers are more aware of health concerns associated with traditional fast-food chains. In addition, many of the upstart restaurant chains have been catering to younger consumers for a long time.
Men eat more fast food
This is also no surprise, but men, and particularly younger men, are huge users of fast-foodservice. According to the study, 38% of men eat fast food on any given day, compared with 35.4% of women. Young men are particularly big users, with 46.5% of men 20 to 39 eating fast food, compared to 43.3% of women the same age.
When broken down by race, African-Americans (42.4%) and whites (37.6%) ate fast food most often. By comparison, 30.6% of Asians use fast food on any given day, and 35.5% of Hispanics do.
African-American women (43%) are more likely than African-American men (41.8%) to use fast food, according to the CDC.
Lunch is still king
Consumers are more likely to eat fast food at lunch than they are any other daypart. But who eats differs considerably.
According to the study, 43.7% of consumers ate fast food at lunch, compared with 42% at dinner, 22.6% snacks and 22.7% breakfast. But that was largely because men like lunch: 48.3% of them said they ate fast-food lunch, compared with just 39.1% of women.
That gap didn’t exist at dinner, when 42.1% of men ate fast food and 41.9% of women did.
More than a quarter of women (25.7%) prefer fast-food snacks, compared to 19.5% of men.
And they also like quick-service breakfast: 23.8% of women ate breakfast, compared with 21.5% of men.