Middle-income families more likely to eat fast food than poor families

Comedian Richard Jeni once said, “one out of every three Americans weighs as much as the other two.” That was the part of his act that was not supposed to be funny.

Fast food has received a bad rap as being the primary cause of obesity, but a recent study by UC Davis researchers has found that fast food is more common among middle-income families than it is among low-income families. Those same middle-income families also have lower rates of obesity than low-income families.

“For the very poor, fast food is not the biggest factor [in obesity],” said Paul Leigh, a professor of public health sciences at UC Davis and lead author of the study.

There is a direct coloration between lower income and increased obesity rates, but if fast food isn’t the cause of low-income obesity, what is?  There are a few other factors that lead to higher obesity rates in low-income families.

Elizabeth Applegate, director of sports nutrition at UC Davis said that obesity is caused by a discrepancy between how many calories are taken in, versus how many are being burned — what she calls the “energy balance equation.”

“If output doesn’t equal input, obesity develops over time,” she said.

When money is tight, priority is put on cost-per-calorie, which means that poor families will buy highly processed carbohydrates, food with saturated fats and sugar-rich sodas and snacks — empty calories. Furthermore, lower-income neighborhoods are generally not as safe as middle and upper-income neighborhoods so children do not receive the recommended 60 minutes of physical activity per day.

“The rate of aging is probably set during development years,” said Roger McDonald, a professor of nutrition at UC Davis. “The reality is that the only two things that will slow down aging are keeping weight off and staying active.”

There are serious health problems that come from obesity: cardiovascular problems and insulin resistance, just to name a few.

“There has been an explosion in cases of Type 2 Diabetes,” said Judith Stern of the UC Davis nutrition department.

Obesity is not just a health concern, but a social concern as well. Obese children are often the targets of bullying, and obesity-related complications cost the health care system $147 billion in 2008.

There is no single person or institution that can be blamed for the easy access to unhealthy foods. Over the past decade, the manufacture of refined carbohydrates has become far less expensive, and fats used in cooking are easier to produce. The U.S. government also spends $17 billion annually subsidizing grain farmers. This makes empty calories even cheaper.

There are a few ways to fix these issues. According to Leigh, there needs to cheap, healthy alternatives to the unhealthy foods on fast food menus, as well as government subsidies for healthy choices. He also believes that there should be a tax on sugary sodas and that the proceeds should go to fund food stamps.

Applegate suggests that neighborhoods create an environment for safe physical activity.

“Davis is a model community,” Applegate said. “There are bike paths, farmers markets with organic food and parents here know the importance of activity and nutrition. Davis is fitness utopia.”

Some fast food chains have begun to address these issues in their own way.

“McDonalds has done a good job of creating awareness through labeling calories on their menu boards,” Stern said.

“We need to promote both sides of the energy equation,” Applegate said. “I compliment McDonalds. They offer play areas which are a safe place for calorie burning.”

Applegate said that kids who eat healthy and are physically active are not only healthier later in life, they have better blood flow, better attention span, better mental acuity and even higher scores on standardized tests.

HUDSON LOFCHIE can be reached at science@theaggie.org.

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