Fast food in Canada: who is eating the most?

Research Brief Publication Date: February 18, 2020
Last Updated: February 18, 2020
Researchers:

Dr. Jennifer L. Black  UBC Faculty of Land and Food Systems 

Jean-Michel Billette  Statistics Canada 

 

About This Brief

This research brief was prepared by the BC Food Web team, based on an article published in the Canadian Journal of Public Health.

Introduction

Public health is a topic of growing concern in Canada; however, there have been limited studies on the contribution of fast food to overall diet in the country. As a result, little is known about whether fast food intake varies across geographic regions, or among socially and economically diverse groups. This study examined Canada’s national levels of fast food consumption, how fast food contributes to daily calorie intake, and how this varies across demographics (age, sex, rural/urban, provincial), socio-economic status (income, education, food security), and lifestyle characteristics (physical activity, fruit/vegetable consumption, vitamin intake, binge drinking, smoking, and Body Mass Index). 

 

Research Process

Data from the 2004 Canadian Community Health Survey (Cycle 2.2), was used to provide a clear depiction of Canada’s population, which allowed for estimates of average fast food consumption from participants age 2 years and older. In the survey, people from all provinces were asked to respond to two identical 24 hour dietary recalls about what they had eaten in the past day; the second 24 hour recall was administered 3 to 10 days following the first in order to account for within-person diet variability. These recalls included questions about serving size, what the food and beverages were, and where the food was prepared. Researchers were interested in average daily calories consumed, how many of those calories were from fast food, and how different socioeconomic, demographic, and lifestyle characteristics affected fast food consumption. 

For the purpose of this study, the definition of fast food primarily focused on how and where the food was prepared; fast food was considered to be food/beverages purchased from limited service restaurants where customers order and pay before eating (i.e. gas stations, drive-in restaurants, etc). Statistical analysis was conducted using the National Cancer Institute (NCI) method to estimate average usual daily intake of calories from fast food and the percentage of calories from fast food.   

Results

On average, fast food makes up approximately 6.3% of daily energy intake for Canadians (1 in every 16 calories). Fast food consumption was shown to be highest for male teens (9.3% of daily caloric intake), and lowest for women age 70 or older (1.9 % of daily caloric intake). Even the youngest age group of boys (2-8 years) had about 8.8% of their daily caloric intake comes from fast food, which suggests that fast food consumption starts early on. Fast food intake declined across adult age groups of both genders. Young and teenage boys consume more fast food than other age groups and genders, with sex and age being significant indicators of level of fast food consumption. The study found that income, education, or food security were not significant indicators of caloric intake of fast food. The number of calories consumed from fast food consumption was lower among adults who regularly took vitamins and who reported consuming more fruits and vegetables. There was no significant link between smoking, level of physical activity, or perceived health status with higher fast food consumption. Overweight adults reported a lower percentage of daily caloric intake from fast food than adults who were not overweight; however, overweight adults did report a higher mean number of calories from fast food. Binge drinking (5+ drinks in one session) was associated with higher rates of fast food consumption. 

Considerations:

This study was able to identify some national trends in fast food consumption. Using a large, nationally representative survey to get data was a strength of this study. Estimates were improved by conducting the 24 hour recall twice on a subset of the sample in order to allow researchers to take into consideration daily variation and the chance that subjects consumed foods irregular in their normal diet. The definition of fast food used for this study mostly focused on how and where food was prepared, as opposed to the nutrition of the food. For example, a coffee and salad bought at a quick-service outlet, such as a gas station, would have been considered fast food because of where it was purchased. The study also cited previous research which illustrates that “full service” restaurants are increasingly serving food with high levels of calories, fat, and sodium, which may have implications for dietary health of Canadians in the future. 

Implications

This study indicates that fast food outlets are notably involved in feeding Canadians, particularly children, teens, and young adults. Age, sex and certain lifestyle characteristics seem to be more strongly associated with fast food intake than socio-economic background, level of physical activity, or smoking. Findings therefore counter public discourses about healthy eating that sometimes portray marginalized and lower income groups as more likely to make unhealthy food choices, such as frequently purchasing fast food. Intervention strategies should be focused on younger age groups, particularly males, in order to foster good dietary practices early on.

 

About This Research

Dr. Jennifer Black received support from the Centre for Science in the Public Interest, Canada and the UBC Food, Nutrition and Health Vitamin Research Fund to support analyses of the Canadian Community Health Survey version 2.2. However, the study described in this brief was not directly supported by any funding agency.

This brief is based on the following journal article:

Black, J. L., & Billette, J. (2015). Fast food intake in canada: Differences among Canadians with diverse demographic, socio-economic and lifestyle characteristics. Canadian Journal of Public Health / Revue Canadienne De Santé Publique, 106(2), e52-e58. doi:10.17269/cjph.106.4658

Key Findings

  • Fast food consumption was significantly different between men and women, as well as between age groups, while income, education, and food security were not significant indicators of fast food consumption
  • Fast food consumption declined as age increased, however this pattern was only seen outside the teenage years; within the adolescent age bracket (2-18) intake was fairly linear even as age increased 
  • On average, young teenage boys were shown to consume the highest percentage of caloric intake from fast food and the highest mean calories from fast food 
  • Lower fast food consumption was seen with adults who regularly took vitamins and reported higher intake of fruits and vegetables