A couple of months ago, I led a study into the number of fast food outlets per capita in Scotland’s major towns and cities. Since that research was conducted, the results have gone on to feature in several press outlets; and I was also approached to conduct similar research for the Republic of Ireland. This subsequently appeared in The Irish Times, and The Journal.
So, as you’ve likely gathered from the title of this post, myself and the Treated.com team have recently turned our attention to the remaining countries in the British Isles: namely Wales, Northern Ireland and England.
We weren’t doing so to try and single out any one particular country as being more partial to fast food than any other. After all, obesity is a UK-wide epidemic, with recent figures quoted in The Guardian stating that around 67% and 57% of British men and women respectively have a BMI of 25 or over.
Our study was more of an investigation into the prominence of fast food outlets in UK towns and cities as a whole, and whether there were any discernible differences between the concentrations in larger cities and in the mid-size, more regional towns.
Dangers of Fast Food
It’s no secret that fast food isn’t great for your health. But we often don’t consider just how bad it can be, particularly if consumed on a regular basis.
We got in touch in with Sarah Boocock and Louise Robertson, the NHS dietitians behind dietitianslife.com, to ask them just how much of an impact a fast food diet can have on your everyday health.
‘Fast food is quick, easy and can be cheap,’ says Sarah. ‘But also tends to be high in saturated fat and is a sure way to pile on the pounds. A burger, fries and coke can account for up to half of your calorie, fat, sugar and salt intake for the day.’
‘Even the ‘healthier’ sounding fast food options, such as sandwiches, panini and salad, can have as much fat and salt as a burger.’ adds Louise.
But in spite of this, fast food outlets remain a highly popular choice among shoppers and workers on their lunch break. So much so, that there are few places in Britain today which don’t have a considerable presence of the big name brands.
Under consideration were the top 25 urban areas in England by population, and the top 10 towns and cities in Wales and Northern Ireland respectively.
We analysed the presence of seven major brands in each: McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC, Domino’s, Subway, Greggs, and Costa.
- Derby and Bristol were neck and neck for highest concentration of total outlets, but Derby just edges it. The results were so close that they had to be calculated to three decimal places in order to provide separation.
- Sunderland came a very close third, with Teesside also very close behind in fourth.
- Highest concentration of McDonald’s was in Middlesbrough & Teesside, with one store for every 37,663 people.
- Lowest concentration Of McDonald’s was in Luton, where just four stores serve a population in excess of 250,000.
- In all the urban areas featured, Subway branches outnumbered McDonald’s stores.
- The only town featured where any one of the brands did not have a presence was in Plymouth, where there is no Greggs store (yet).
- Southend had the lowest total concentration of the seven brands surveyed, with Birkenhead and Plymouth taking second and third lowest respectively.
- Four of the lowest five were seaside towns.
- There does not appear to be any significant pattern in terms of north/south divide.
- Highest concentration of Mcdonald’s was in Bridgend, where three stores serve a population of 46,757
- Bridgend also has the highest concentration of Greggs, with five stores serving the town. That’s one store to every 9,351 people.
- With the highest concentration of total outlets, Bridgend is the ‘Welsh fast food capital’. Wrexham placed second.
- The town with the lowest presence of chain outlets per capita was Neath.
- Barry was a respectable second. In this town of 54,673 people, there is just one McDonald’s outlet.
- The presence of outlets in Swansea was relatively low when compared proportionately to Cardiff and Newport.
- Greggs not included in survey, as they only currently have one store in the outer Newtownabbey area.
- Derry and Bangor have the healthiest numbers, with the lowest number of outlets per capita.
- Belfast’s numbers also favourable when compared to cities of comparable size in Scotland and Wales.
- Belfast’s numbers might have looked different if the neighboring ‘suburb’ of Castlereagh was included, which contains two McDonald’s, a Burger King, two KFCs, a Domino’s and two Subway stores. However, the Castlereagh area was discounted for two reasons: firstly, as of May 2015, it forms part of the Lisburn and Castlereagh council area (but not strictly the urban area); secondly, the latest available urban population figure for the Castlereagh area alone is from 2001, and is therefore not comparable to the other towns and cities included in this study.
- Subway have a particularly high presence in Belfast, with 28 stores.
- Craigavon (urban area) has the highest number of McDonald’s per capita. Three stores serve an estimated population of just 65,000.
- Lisburn has the lowest concentration of McDonald’s, where just one store serves a population of over 71,000.
- Newry was the town with the highest number of total outlets per capita, and is a small town where every brand is represented.
At first glance, it seems as though urban areas in Wales and Northern Ireland have a higher general concentration than England. However, it should be noted that because we took the 25 and 10 most populous areas in each country (and England is obviously exponentially more populous than its UK neighbours), towns of a comparable size to Newry and Bridgend from England were not measured.
Having said that, across the three nations, was there a considerable difference in concentrations of areas of comparable size that were measured?
Let’s take a look:
- To be as fair as possible, we’ll compare Belfast (population 333,900), Cardiff (335,145), and Sunderland and Wearside (335,415).
- We found that there wasn’t a vast gap between Belfast and Sunderland and Wearside in terms of total outlets, with 55 and 61 respectively; giving per capita concentrations of 0.16 and 0.18 outlets per 1000 people.
- Cardiff however, contained 75, giving a concentration of 0.22 stores per 1000 people.
- Additionally, Newport had a concentration of 0.22, and Swansea of 0.19, which is comparable to Derby.
- Further down the table, several of the smaller Welsh towns had figures which were closer to the English and Northern Ireland averages. But it seems as though the larger built-up areas in Wales mentioned above had comparatively high concentrations.
- The closest towns in Scotland and Ireland to the above in terms of comparable population were Aberdeen (228,000) and Dublin (527,000), which had respective concentrations of 0.12 and 0.18.
- The difference between Aberdeen and Cardiff was perhaps the most striking, with Aberdeen having almost half the concentration of the Welsh capital.
Cardiff aside, it was the smaller towns in each nation which generally fared worse than the cities. The highest concentrations in Wales, Scotland, Ireland and Northern Ireland were all in towns of 60,000 or less: Bridgend, Livingston, Swords and Newry.
How to avoid temptation
‘The results of the study highlight that fast food outlets are never far from us and the temptation is always there.’ says Sarah Boocock.
Indeed, the main attraction of fast food, as I’ve said before, is convenience.
But as Louise Robertson explains:
‘Fast food should only ever be a very occasional treat. And on the few occasions where you do eat fast food, try and check out the menu beforehand to look for healthier lower fat versions (if there are any). Avoid extra cheese or cream options and choose the smaller portions as often your eyes are bigger than your stomach.’
The Importance of Preparation
However, treats aside, how can you reduce the likelihood that you’ll need to visit a fast food outlet during your normal working week? We spoke to Charlotte Stirling-Reed, registered nutritionist and owner of SR Nutrition, and asked for her advice:
‘Choosing healthy options can be tricky when you’re out and about, mainly because you have little control over things such as portion sizes, cooking methods and levels of added fat, sugar and salt.’ Charlotte explains.
‘One of the best ways to tackle this is to try and plan ahead as much as possible.’
‘When out at work, it’s always a good idea to bring lunch from home. This gives much more control back to you as to what and how much you eat. Remember to pack a few snacks to get you through that mid afternoon slump such as nuts and seeds, a banana or some yoghurt and dried fruit.’
And if you’re in the mood for something a little more substantial for lunch, you don’t have to stick to soup or sandwiches, as Charlotte illustrates:
‘I often recommend my clients make a little extra for dinner the night before and bring in leftovers for lunch the next day which saves time and reduces food waste.’
So, just because you’re busy at work or having a hard day’s shop, don’t feel inclined to rely on the usual fast food eateries to get you through.
The spike in sugars a fast food meal provides will wear off later in the day, and might leave you feeling tired and lethargic.
More importantly, however, keep in mind that over the long term, regularly eating fast food certainly isn’t going to do your waistline, heart or your respiratory system any favours. Keep it strictly to special occasions.