SAN FRANCISCO, CA - NOVEMBER 03: A McRib is seen at a McDonald's restaurant on November 3, 2010 in San Francisco, California. The sandwich arrived on the menu for the first time since 1994 and is offered at all McDonald's nationwide for a …
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Fast food alone cannot be blamed for high obesity rates among people with low incomes, according to a new study by the University of California's Center for Healthcare Policy and Research.
The research calls into question stereotypes that have led some cities -- in Southern California and elsewhere -- to cite obesity when passing laws limiting or banning new fast-food restaurants in poorer communities.
Nutritionists and food policy experts said that doesn't let fast food off the hook -- and at least one of the UC Davis researchers agreed.
"I'm sure that fast food in general has a big effect on obesity," said J. Paul Leigh, lead author of the study, which will be published in Population Health Management in December. "This research does not contradict that."
It does challenge the notion that those with low incomes eat more fast food than those with higher incomes.
Health economists Leigh and co-author DaeHwan Kim analyzed data from the mid-1990s and compared household income with visits to fast-food and full-service restaurants.
Rather than finding fast-food visits going down with income, they found visits peak at $60,000 in income, before falling slightly. People with low incomes "are not spending as much on fast food as lower-middle income or middle income," Leigh said.
Others said the study needs more careful analysis.
"It would be a big mistake to look at the results of this report and say the environments people live in don't matter, because they do," said Micah Weinberg, a senior policy adviser for the Bay Area Council, a business-sponsored advocacy group focused on public policy.
The study doesn't cover what else people eat, nor separate out the rural poor, who may not have access to fast-food restaurants.
It's also important to look at what other foods are available to consumers, Weinberg said. "Is your neighborhood full of 7-Elevens or is it full of Whole Foods?"
Judith Stern, a UC Davis nutrition professor and a nationally recognized expert on obesity, called for wholesome, high-quality foods to be available in low-income neighborhoods.
Stern acknowledged the difficulties facing low-income working people: "If you could cook at home, it would be cheaper. But where do you have the time?"
Leigh and Kim's study also showed:
People with more education were more likely to go to full-service restaurants.
Smokers were more likely to go to fast-food restaurants.
People who worked longer hours were more likely to eat out.
Men were more likely than women to eat out.
(Contact Carlos Alcalá at alcala(at)sacbee.com. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)
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