Photos courtesy of McDonald's and Sweetgreen.

The CDC reports that 36 percent of American adults eat fast food everyday—but what exactly do they consider to be "fast food?"

Zee Krstic
October 30, 2018

Many in the health industry, including our very own team of nutritionists, were dismayed to hear of a new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report released earlier this month, suggesting that more than one third of American adults eat fast food daily. The study, which was conducted between 2013 and 2016, found that a whopping 44 percent of those between the ages of 20 and 39 years old were purchasing food from fast-food restaurants—and what's more, people with higher incomes being had an increased likelihood of regular consumption.

While many prominent media outlets covered the report and its illuminating statistics, nearly all of them failed to fully identify which restaurants were included in the CDC's study.

Leah Douglas, an associate editor at the Food and Environment Reporting Network, took a closer look at which kinds of restaurants were considered to be serving "fast food" by the federal agency's standards. She pinpointed a few chains that could help put perspective into why the numbers seem so high; it turns out that the study considered much more than just McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, and the ilk. Many fast-casual chains, even those with reputable commitments to healthier items and non-processed ingredients, qualified for the CDC's report—including Sweetgreen, the hyper-local salad chain where most meals are packed with fresh fruit and vegetables, and are around 520 calories.

The CDC also included data from places like Kentucky Fried Chicken and Taco Bell, of course—but they also included input from coffee shops, bagel stores, and even ice cream parlors. It's a broader definition than most would probably associate with fast food, and for some experts, it raises concern over the effect that the CDC's report will have on the health industry.

After all, Douglas makes the point that the general public could be under the impression that one-in-three Americans eat a Big Mac everyday.

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The key to understanding the study in question is to know that the study's participants self-reported whether they had eaten fast food, including items from "carry out" restaurants. When Douglas pressed Cheryl Fryar, the study's lead author, on the definition of "fast food" used in her research, Fryar confirmed that fast-casual chains were included in data collection, including Sweetgreen, as well as the likes of Panera Bread, Chipotle, and even Mediterranean-chain Zoe's Kitchen.

There's plenty of valid research to support claims that fast food is inherently harmful, and childhood obesity is a rampant epidemic in the United States—but Douglas' inquiry brings up the point that the CDC failed to include a strict definition about which restaurants were identified as "fast food" by the study's participants.

Marion Nestle, a longtime nutrition and food studies professor at New York University, told Douglas that the team behind the CDC's study "did not assess diet quality for this report." Another CDC-commissioned study, published in 2013, suggested that 11 percent of Americans' caloric intake came from fast food—this study used a very similar definition based on self-reporting methodology as well.

The bottom line: It's clear that eating fast-food meals regularly can be extremely problematic for health and holistic diets, but the CDC may need to work on identifying which kinds of restaurants are truly playing a role in America's obesity rates.

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