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Study questions link between fast food and lower-income obesity

Fast food alone cannot be blamed for high obesity rates among people with low incomes, according to a new UC Davis Center for Healthcare Policy and Research study.

The research calls into question stereotypes that have led some cities in Southern California to cite obesity when passing laws limiting or banning new fast-food restaurants in poorer communities.

Nutritionists and food policy experts, however, said that doesn't let fast food off the hook – and at least one of the UC Davis researchers agreed.

"I'm not a big fan of fast food," said J. Paul Leigh, lead author of the study, which will be published in Population Health Management in December. "I'm sure that fast food in general has a big effect on obesity. 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.

"They (people with low incomes) are not spending as much on fast food as lower-middle income or middle income," Leigh said. "Just to say, 'Fast food is the sole problem,' that's not where the sole problem is."

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 at the Bay Area Council who works on public health issues.

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