After a long day at work or out running errands, grabbing a sandwich at a fast-food restaurant can sound like a good option for a meal.
In Johnson County, finding fast food isn’t a problem. A total of 56 percent of restaurants are fast food, according to statistics from the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute. The county is tied with neighboring Morgan County for the highest percentage of fast-food restaurants in central Indiana and ranks 14th-highest among Indiana’s 92 counties.
Although fast food can be a quick and cheap bite to eat, health studies suggest a wider availability of high-calorie and high-fat foods can lead to higher rates of obesity or chronic diseases among residents.
About 29 percent of people in Johnson County are obese, which is above the national benchmark but similar to other central Indiana counties, according to the study.
Fast-food restaurants often are located around retail locations that draw in thousands of shoppers per day, economist Matt Will said. Greenwood Park Mall, shopping centers and big-box stores along U.S. 31 and State Road 135 attract those restaurants.
In addition, the average income of local residents is lower than other counties, which makes affordable options, such as fast food, more appealing here, he said. The county’s 124 fast-food restaurants are the third-most in central Indiana.
The county has the highest per-capita rate of fast-food restaurants in central Indiana, with one restaurant for every 1,150 people.
Having more fast-food restaurants doesn’t necessarily mean Johnson County residents are less healthy.
But areas that have more fast food often have more people who are overweight or have conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes or high cholesterol, according to the study.
A higher percentage of local residents are active compared with people who live in other parts of central Indiana, except Hamilton County. But the annual health ranking study shows residents are more likely to die before age 75 than people who live in Boone, Hamilton or Hendricks counties. Fast food isn’t to blame for all health problems, but a higher number of restaurants serving unhealthy food means more temptation when deciding what to eat, local nutritionists said.
Indulging in hamburgers, chicken nuggets or a super-sized soda occasionally is OK, but frequently eating large portions of food high in calories, fat, sodium and sugars puts a person at risk for health issues, Johnson Memorial Hospital nutrition services manager Carol Peak said. Some fast-food restaurants have started offering healthier alternatives, but cooking at home and controlling meal sizes, seasoning and ingredients is the best way to eat healthy, she said.
Across the country, people are going out to eat more than ever before, and fast food is a convenient choice because it’s quick and cheap. A person may be able to prepare a healthy meal at home for $4 or $5 per person or they can get a burger and fries for about the same price without having to do the work, Will said.
Workers in Johnson County make enough money to be able to eat out from time to time, and their average income fits with the price range of fast food, he said. By comparison, Hamilton County workers make more money on average, so they are also more likely to spend more to go out to a sit-down restaurant where they can eat a healthier meal, he said.
Residents can eat healthier if they avoid restaurants altogether and cook at home, Purdue Extension director and educator Linda Souchon said. People can eat healthy on any type of income if they know what to cook and plan ahead so they’re not wasting meat, produce or dairy products that spoil if not used in a timely fashion, she said.
Planning meals and having ingredients on hand can help prevent those impulse visits to a fast-food restaurant, Peak said. Even if you plan to eat out, she said, looking at a menu ahead of time can help you identify foods that have lower calories or fat.
But planning, doing extensive grocery shopping and cooking can all be obstacles to eating healthy because people may not be willing or able to spend the time or effort to do it, Will said. He gave as an example a parent who might rather take a child to the park for an hour after work and grab fast food, instead of spending that hour cooking a healthy meal.
“That’s the problem that we’re having in our country. Restaurants are so efficient at producing a high-quality product at a low cost, and we find it irresistible,” Will said. “Are you going to spend an hour making dinner or one minute standing in line?”