Americans cut back on fast food, but why?

American adults got 11 percent of their daily calories from fast food in 2010, down from about 13 percent four years earlier, a new study shows. Public education may have played a role, but so have pocketbook issues.

Evan Vucci/AP/File
In this June 2011 file photo, first lady Michelle Obama tends the White House garden in Washington, with a group of children as part of the 'Let's Move!' campaign.

Whether it’s the economy, public education about fast food, or first lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign, Americans appear to be cutting back on fast food.

American adults are consuming about 11 percent of their daily calories from fast food in 2010, down from almost 13 percent in 2006, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While overall caloric intake has not changed for American adults, the drop in fast food consumption has coincided with a leveling of obesity rates among adults.

“The drop is significant, statistically,” says one of the study’s lead authors, Cheryl Fryar, a health statistician with the National Center for Health Statistics, part of the CDC. “Historically a lot of fast food has been high in fat, high in sodium … and frequent fast food consumption is linked to weight gain.”

A separate report from the CDC found more good news among youths: American children and adolescents consumed fewer calories in 2010 than they did a decade before, the first decline in caloric intake among children in more than 40 years.

Americans have long had a troubled relationship with diet and weight – two-thirds of American adults are considered overweight or obese, and about 17 percent of youths are considered obese – and the CDC’s reports offered hope to many in the nutrition and health fields. 

“It’s a trend in the right direction,” says Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University. “That’s good news. This is a cause for mild celebration.”

Among the studies’ findings:

• During 2007-2010, adults consumed 11.3 percent of total daily calories from fast food, on average, compared with 12.8 percent between 2003-2006.

• Blacks consumed more of their calories from fast food than did whites or Hispanics: 15 percent compared to 11 percent.

• Young adults ages 20 to 39 also consumed higher rates of fast food than Americans 60 and over: 15 percent compared with 11 percent.

• Young black adults ages 20 to 39 had the highest rates of fast food consumption; they got 21 percent of their calories from fast food.

• Calorie consumption for boys ages 2 to 19 dropped 7 percent between 1999 and 2010, from 2,260 calories per day to 2,100.

• Girls’ calorie consumption dropped 4 percent over the same period, from 1,830 calories to 1,760.

Though it’s difficult to pin down exactly what is behind the trend in falling fast food consumption, nutrition professionals say a number of factors could be at play.

For starters, public health efforts – like Mrs. Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign – may finally be sinking in. 

“The take-home message is that public education messages to eat less [fast food] are working,” says Lisa Young, a professor of nutrition at New York University. “We are shifting toward healthier options.” 

Of course, it’s also possible that Americans are still going to fast food restaurants, but simply choosing lower-calorie menu items, now more widely available.

“Fast food restaurants are beginning to provide a variety of healthier choices on their menus,” says Ms. Fryar of the CDC.

Perhaps the most surprising factor, however, is the economy.

The average American bought about 152 meals at fast food restaurants in 2012, down from 158 in 2006, Harry Balzer, chief industry analyst at NPD Group, a market research firm, told USA Today.

This drop, Mr. Balzer told the newspaper, “is mostly due to money because we never let our overall food costs rise faster than our incomes, and our incomes have been under pressure so we ate more meals at home.”

Whatever the reasons behind the drop in fast food consumption, health and nutrition professionals are guardedly optimistic about the findings, but caution that Americans still have plenty of room to improve eating habits.

“We should still be eating a lot less, if any, fast food to reverse overweight and obesity trends in this country,” says Samantha Heller, a registered dietician at New York University’s Center for Musculoskeletal Care. She advises Americans to cut in half the number of times they eat fast food.

A closer look at the data, she says, reveals some concerning trends.

“When you look at the data and see how many overweight and obese 20- to 30-year-olds there are – and a higher percentage of them are eating fast food – the concern is they’re at risk" for a series of health problems that researchers link to diet. 

The report also illustrates the progress yet to be made in food policy, says Dr. Nestle.

“Fast food is still heavily consumed by young men and heavily marketed to African-Americans in low-income communities,” she says, pointing to the high rates of fast food consumption among young, black men. “There’s a lot of targeted marketing going on to this population, and the results of the study show this marketing is effective.”

The data provide insight into the limited accessibility of fresh produce and unprocessed foods in many urban settings, the relative affordability of fast food, and the need for more effective food assistance programs, she adds.

“These are steps in the right direction,” says Nestle. “But we need to be asking more questions.”

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