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Guess who eats fast food most frequently?

Findings from a recently released study “caught me off guard at first,” economist says

The residential properties in Harry Norman agent Rhonda Cheek's portfolio brim with variety: the $1.1 million townhouse on Paces Ferry Avenue boasts a chef's kitchen with sub-zero fridge; the $150,000 ranch house in Haralson County sits on 2 acres.

Mealtimes, on the other hand, are far more uniform. Breakfast is usually oatmeal from McDonald's. She loves that fresh fruit is available at QuikTrip and Race Trac, although she'll sometimes snag a slice of pizza for the road.

When she takes time for lunch, the grilled chicken sandwich at Chick-fil-A is a quick option she feels good about.

"I don't really like fast food, but if I've got to go by there, at least I know what I'm getting," said Cheek, who's based out of Harry Norman's Marietta office but represents properties across metro Atlanta and beyond. As her business has increased during her 14 years in real estate, so have her trips to the drivethru. She perfectly reflects one set of findings from the National Center for Health Statistics' National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, released recently by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

MORE: This fast-food joint is tops with teens, study shows

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"The percentage of adults who consumed fast food increased with increasing family income," the Atlanta-based health organization noted as part of its multiyear study on adults' fast-food habits. The complete study is online here.

The data may seem counterintuitive at first.

"Overall, 31.7 percent of lower-income, 36.4 percent of middle-income and 42 percent of higher-income adults consumed fast food on a given day. A similar pattern was observed for both men and women."

The three income brackets correlate to the federal poverty level for a family of four during 2013-2016, the years the study covered. Those income levels using 2018 data would be roughly $32,630 or less for lower earners; from $32,630 to $87,850 for the middle; and greater than $87,850 on the high end.

"This is an interesting finding that caught me off guard at first, but it makes some sense upon reflection," said Kennesaw State University economist J.C. Bradbury, whose Saturday mornings usually involve a stop at Bojangle's. "I feel much better about my own habits hearing about this. An advantage of fast food is it's fast. We all prioritize our routines."

Time, in other words, is indeed money.For

higher-in-come earners, that time can be increasingly valuable.

"I don't know how many clients I've sat in front of with my stomach growling," Cheek said. "I may not eat lunch until dinner. Dinner is the only time where I make sure I sit down and eat a complete meal. A lot of times I'm so exhausted I can only eat half of it."

This is not an ideal nutrition plan, as Cheek readily observes. But drive-thru dining doesn't have to be a diet

disaster, said Atlanta writer Erika Redding, who chronicled her 130-pound weight loss (and a little regaining) on her blog, "Erika is Losing It."

"When I'm not super-prepared, I often find myself at a fast-food drive-thru," she said. "These days you can customize nearly everything to fit your needs. Grilled chicken sandwiches (hold the mayo) are sure-fire offerings at most places."

An order of eight grilled nuggets at Chick-fil-A has 140 calories and 3½ grams of fat, according to the restaurant's nutrition page. On the occasions when only a burger and fries will do, Redding thinks small, as in a McDonald's Happy Meal. The regular cheeseburger and kid-sized fries have about 410 calories and 17 grams of fat.

"The most important thing to remember is that there is nearly always a healthy option available," Redding said. "But you have to decide to make that choice before you even get there."

Craig Ashwood of Snell-ville has his order in mind when he approaches the Golden Arches, but he's motivated by convenience far more than nutrition. Plus, he just really loves Egg McMuffins.

"I realize what I'm eating is not fruit. It's not the healthiest thing in the world. I get that. I don't care," he said. Actually, at 300 calories and 12 grams of fat, McDonald's signature breakfast item isn't the worst start to the day; the chain's fruit and maple oatmeal item has 310 calories but one-third the fat.

Ashwood, who commutes into Atlanta and works in digital consulting, says his drive-thru visits have picked up over the years as his disposable income has.

These days he sinks his teeth into his favorite McBreakfast about three days a week.

"It really depends on traffic and how late I am," he said. "It's easy, it's fast, it's good."

He's lovin' it. Photo: Jennifer Brett

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