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As income rises, so does fast-food consumption, study finds

November 7, 2011 |  2:11 pm

Fries

The conventional wisdom goes something like this: Obesity rates are skyrocketing among the poorest Americans, therefore fast-food restaurants must be to blame.

But a new study by a professor at UC Davis' medical school has found that it's Americans with salaries at the higher end of the spectrum -- in some cases as high as $80,000 to $90,000 -- who are driving fast-food consumption at the likes of McDonald's and Burger King.

"There's a strong correlation been income and obesity," professor Paul Leigh told The Times. "And so people say, 'Oh, well, it's the fast-food restaurants that are causing obesity among the poor.' But that's not true. To focus on fast-food restaurants as the sole cause of obesity is incorrect."

The professor of health economics said the study of the dining habits of about 5,000 Americans found that as a household's income increased, so did visits to chain fast-food restaurants such as McDonald's. (That dropped dramatically, however, as income went even higher, presumably because the high-income types can hire cooks or afford to eat at restaurants with tablecloths.)

The research is to be published in a coming issue of the journal Population Health Management.

Now, you might wonder whether Leigh is some kind of fast-food restaurant apologist, and you might want to know whether the study was underwritten by a business that makes money off dashboard dining.

Far from it, says Leigh, who stresses that he's no fan of fast-food restaurants. He just wants to make sure that lawmakers and people in positions of power are targeting the right causes of obesity.

"I do not like fast-food restaurants and I rarely visit them," he said, adding that if it were up to him he'd slap a hefty tax on soda pop and other junk food and then use the proceeds to help get more fruits and vegetables into the kitchens of the nation's poorest residents. "I just want us to be rational and realistic about how we can approach the obesity epidemic, especially among the poor."

The causes of the obesity problem are much more complex, he said, and in many ways have to do more with the relatively cheap price of junk food items found in supermarkets, convenience stores and mom-and-pop markets in impoverished neighborhoods. Soda, for one, is cheap and plentiful and a key contributor to obesity rates, he said.

He also noted that, although fast food has a reputation for being cheap, a steady fast-food diet is largely out of financial reach for the truly impoverished, especially those who need food stamps to get by.

"I was a little surprised by the findings," he said of the study conducted along with his colleague, DaeHwan Kim.

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Photo: You can't just blame McDonald's French fries for the poor's obesity rates, says a UC Davis medical school professor. Credit: Scott Olson / Getty Images

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