Burgers and fried chicken aren't as cheap as you might think.
who is consuming fast food
Credit: shene / Getty Images

Eating healthfully isn't always cheap. In fact, these days, a simple house salad can cost way more than a Big Mac and a side of French fries depending on where you buy your greens. And because of this simple fact, it's been easy to assume that those of us with less to spend actually eat more junk.

But recent research published in Economics & Human Biology turns that thinking on its head, showing lower-income households actually don't hit fast-food drive-thrus more often. In fact, the middle class is ordering the most deep-fried chicken and burger-centric value meals while the least wealthy are eating slightly less. The wealthiest among us order the least amount about of fast food but only by a few percentage points difference.

Surprised? The scientists behind the research argue it shouldn't be surprising at all. After all, they point out, President Donald Trump—a very well-to-do man—loves McDonald's, while Warren Buffet often eats Oreos.

"What we learned from our research is that we all have a soft spot for fast food," the scientists explain in The Conversation.

The researchers talked to Baby Boomers about their fast-food consumption in three separate years, including 2008, 2010, and 2012. They asked how many times in the last week the participants had eaten from a bevy of fast-food options: McDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell. The researchers soon found out that almost everyone—an average of 79 percent—had eaten fast food that week. But only 81 percent of the lowest earners said they eat fast food compared to 85 percent of the middle earners. (About 75 percent of the highest earners ate fast food, too.)

Here's another wake up call: fast food isn't as cheap as it once was. According to the findings, an average meal at a fast-food place is now more than $8. That's compared to an average $15 tab at a full-service restaurant—you know, the ones with servers.

As the researchers say, "$8 is a lot for a family living under the U.S. poverty line, which for a family of two is [about] $16,000 [a year], or about $44 per day." So, they point out, it's doubtful a family on that income would spend a third of it eating out.