Health follows a socioeconomic status (SES) gradient in developed countries, with disease prevalence falling as SES rises. This pattern is partially attributed to differences in nutritional intake, with the poor eating the least healthy diets. This paper examines whether there is an SES gradient in one specific aspect of nutrition: fast-food consumption. Fast food is generally high in calories and low in nutrients. We use data from the 2008, 2010, and 2012 waves of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY79) to test whether adult fast-food consumption in the United States falls as monetary resources rise (n = 8136). This research uses more recent data than previous fast-food studies and includes a comprehensive measure of wealth in addition to income to measure SES.
We find little evidence of a gradient in adult fast-food consumption with respect to wealth. While adults in the highest quintile are 54.5% less likely to report fast-food consumption than those in the lowest quintile, adults in the second and third quintiles are no less likely to report fast food–food intake than the poorest. Contrary to popular belief, fast-food consumption rises as income rises from the lowest to middle quintiles. The variation in adult fast-food consumption across income and wealth groups is, however, small. Those in the wealthiest quintile ate about one less fast-food meal on average than those in the lowest quintile. Other factors play a bigger role in explaining fast-food consumption: reading ingredient labels is negatively associated while soda consumption and hours of work are positively associated with fast-food consumption.