Fast Food Consumption Among Adults in the United States, 2013-2016

Questions for Cheryl Fryar, M.S.P.H., Health Statistician and Lead Author of “Fast Food Consumption Among Adults in the United States, 2013-2016

Q: Of all the types of food that Americans eat, what made you decide to focus on fast food for this study?

CF: We focused on fast food for this report because fast food has played an important role in the American diet in recent decades. Fast food has been associated with poor diet and increased risk of obesity. In a previous report, we analyzed and described the percentage of calories consumed from fast food among adults. This current study looks at fast food consumption in a different way. We describe who is eating fast food on a given day. Specifically in this new report, we look at the percentage of adults who consume fast food overall as well as by sex, age group, race and Hispanic origin, family income level and eating occasion.


Q: Your new report measures fast food consumption “on a given day.” What does that mean exactly?

CF: Fast food consumption “on a given day” reflects the way respondents in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey reported all the foods and beverages they consumed in the previous 24 hours. The survey is designed to be representative of people anywhere in the United States at any time of the year, so “on a given day” refers to any day—so for example, on any day in the United States, approximately 37% of U.S. adults consume some fast food.

“Fast food” is defined as any food a respondent reported getting from a “restaurant fast food/pizza” outlet in the 2013-2016 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey – often known as NHANES.


Q: What type of trend data do you have on eating fast food in the United States; for example, how has the consumption of fast food changed in the United States over the last 10 to 20 years?

CF: While we did not look at trend data for this report, dietary data collected from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey is a joint effort between the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The USDA has tables with calories (or energy) consumed from quick service restaurants – which includes fast food along with cafeterias and food trucks. These tables show that in 2015-2016, 15% of calories was from quick service restaurants compared to 16% in 2011-2012.


Q: Was there a finding in this new report on fast food that you hadn’t expected and that really surprised you?

CF:  While there really wasn’t anything in this report that I hadn’t expected to see or that was surprising to me, this report’s analysis does offer some new information. Results from this study were similar to what we found for youth in 2011-2012, where 34% of youth consumed fast food. A new contribution from this new research is reporting fast food consumption among non-Hispanic Asian American adults in comparison to other groups. A notable finding is that non-Hispanic Asian American adults consumed a lower percentage of fast food (30.6%) compared to non-Hispanic white (37.6%) and non-Hispanic black (42.4%) adults.


Q: What differences or similarities did you see between or among various demographic groups in this analysis of fast food consumption?

CF: We found some differences in the percentage of U.S. adults who consume fast food. For example, fast food consumption decreased with age and increased with increasing income. About 45% of young adults consumed fast food compared to just over 24% of older adults. About 32% of adults in the lowest income group consumed fast food compared to 42% of adults in the highest income group. And a lower percentage of non-Hispanic Asian adults (30.6%) consumed fast food compared to non-Hispanic white (37.6%) and non-Hispanic black (42.4%) adults.

Also, among those who consumed fast food, men were more likely than women to eat fast food at lunch, but women were more likely than men to report eating fast food as a snack.


Q: What would you say is the take-home message of this report?

CF: The take-home message of this report is that overall more than one-third of U.S. adults and 45% of young adults consume fast food on a given day. Fast food restaurants can vary, though consumers can find nutritional information, such as calories, on the menu in most fast food establishments and restaurants.

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