A new CDC report this October 2018 suggests that one-third of American adults eat at fast food or pizza restaurants every day.
Even though fast food is low in nutrients and high in calories, a new report suggests that more than one-third of Americans reach for these quick bites every day. The data, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), align with growing epidemics of obesity and type 2 diabetes in the United States, as well as with recently reported fast-food eating trends in young people.
“Back in 2015, we found that 34 percent of youth eat fast food daily, so we predicted similar numbers for adults,” says one of the study’s authors, Cheryl Fryar, a health statistician with the National Center for Health Statistics in Washington, DC. In the current report, Fryar and her team found that 37 percent of American adults eat fast food daily, with black adults eating fast food the most (about 42 percent), followed by white adults (about 38 percent), Hispanic adults (about 36 percent), and Asian adults (about 31 percent).
Researchers looked at 2013–2016 data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), which asked participants to recall the food and source of food they ate in the last 24 hours. They defined those sources as “restaurant fast food/pizza.”
In the report, not only did researchers measure how often American adults ate fast food, they also identified certain trends based on income and sex.
Debunking the Fast Food and Poverty Myth
The higher your income, the more likely you are to swing by the drive-through, the data suggest.
Contrary to the belief that people who earn less rely more on fast food because it offers a cheap source of calories, the CDC found that the percentage of adults who ate fast food daily increased with family income. About 32 percent of people with the lowest income eat fast food daily, compared with about 36 percent of people with a middle income and 42 percent of people with the highest income.
While the current study didn’t explore why, past research offers clues. For example, a study published in November 2017 in Economics & Human Biology found a link between more hours worked, rather than wealth, and a greater tendency to eat fast food regularly.
“I constantly hear people list time as a barrier that keeps them from making their own meals,” says Sharon Palmer, a Los Angeles–based registered dietitian nutritionist in private practice. “If you’re making a higher income, you’re likely working a lot of hours, and if you don’t pack ahead, what’s your option other than fast food?” The CDC report found lunch is the most popular fast-food meal for Americans to grab, followed closely by dinner. Palmer’s theory also makes sense when you factor in that the oldest age bracket studied, 60-plus (and potentially retired) people, was the least likely to eat fast food daily.
But the CDC study didn’t reveal the types of food people eat when they’re pressed for time. “The report is just telling you that people are eating fast food — it doesn’t tell you whether they’re making healthy choices or not,” says Fryar. At the same time, McDonald’s and Panera Bread were both considered fast food, according to the study, even though one has a reputation for being healthier than the other.
Women Get Fast Food Snacks More Than Men
The report also found that while men are more likely to order a meal at fast-food chains, women are more likely to order a snack. “Women might not want a huge fast food meal, so they could be stopping in for lighter options,” says Palmer.
Still, even snacking on fast food can have health consequences. “If you’re taking a break from work and going to a coffee shop for a drink and a bite, that can load up your day with calories,” says Palmer. Consider that a muffin at Starbucks can clock in at 440 calories, according to the Starbucks website.
For a better snack option, Palmer suggests sticking to nuts — you can buy prepacked, one-ounce bags or put them in bags yourself — and keep them handy in your purse, at the office or in your car. This way, you’ll have a filling bite at the ready, and if you do grab coffee, you’ll be full enough to pass up the bakery counter.
Why Fast Food Often Isn’t the Healthiest Option
Fast food is seen almost as a staple of the American diet, and that’s a problem. Not only is fast food associated with higher calorie consumption, according to a past CDC report, but it’s also linked to poor diet quality because it’s low in nutrients and high in fat and cholesterol. Over time, a poor diet may lead to obesity, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes.
Plus, regularly eating fast food can have other, surprising negative effects. A study published in July 2018 in Respirology found a link between eating fast food and a higher likelihood of having asthma, as well as eczema and pollen fever.
Another study, published in April 2016 in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, found that people who ate the most fast food had phthalate levels that were as much as 40 percent higher than those who ate the least. Phthalates are potentially harmful chemicals used in plastics.
Fast food may even affect your mood. A study published in January 2012 in Public Health Nutrition observed an association between eating fast food and a higher risk of depression.
When thinking about fast food and how it affects your health, Palmer says it’s important to look at what you’re not getting when you make a drive-through run. “What’s lacking in fast food are the vegetables — you can find protein and bread, but in a sandwich it’s usually just one tomato and one leaf of lettuce, and that’s not enough nutrients,” she says.
On top of that, it’s hard to find a healthy protein, let alone a plant-based protein like chickpeas or beans, says Palmer. And those carbohydrates? “You may be getting white bread, but you’re typically not getting quality grains like quinoa or brown rice.”
How to Choose Smartly When You’re on the Go
When you’re short on time, fast food can be difficult to resist. But Palmer says you can employ a few strategies to eat healthier on the go, including:
Lean on leftovers. Pack up any leftovers you have from the night before in a container, and take them to work with you the next day. “Not only are you limiting food waste — a huge problem in this country — but chances are your meal will be a lot healthier and tastier than what you’d get on the go,” she says.
Give Sunday meal prep a try. To take the guesswork out of your weekday lunches, get a jump start on your prep over the weekend. They don’t have to be fancy, says Palmer: just a cooked whole grain and vegetables, a protein like chickpeas, and a little oil or a simple dressing.
Master one-pot (or pan) meals. For dinner, Palmer is a fan of one-pot dishes that cut down on dish-cleaning time. She also suggests simple stir-fry meals that combine whatever healthy protein you have in your fridge or pantry, plus ample vegetables and brown rice or another whole grain. “I think people need to think about dinner as not taking hours to make — everyone needs a few easy, healthy recipes up their sleeve that they can make in 30 minutes or less,” says Palmer.
If you must eat out, choose wisely. I know we all have very busy days or hectic travel schedules when fast food is simply the easiest option. And that’s okay, says Palmer. “A lot of fast food chains are changing their game, so try to choose the healthiest, most vegetable-filled meal you can find,” she says. Then, just be sure you’re cooking the rest of your meals at home. “What’s most powerful is what we do on an everyday basis,” she says.