Time Spent Eating Varies by Age, Education, and Body Mass Index
Understanding how individuals and households allocate time to food-related activities—for example, grocery shopping, cooking, and eating—can provide insight into behaviors that may affect nutrition and diet-related health. For example, a longer time in the grocery store could reflect a more nutritionally thoughtful approach to grocery shopping and cooking, resulting in healthier meals. Similarly, recent research suggests that slow and more mindful eating can help to curb excess food intake.
ERS researchers used national statistics from the Eating & Health Module of the American Time Use Survey (ATUS), conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, to see if time spent eating varies by adult subpopulations. The ATUS asks one individual in each surveyed household about his or her use of time over a full 24-hour day, beginning at 4 a.m. on the day before the interview and ending at 4 a.m. on the interview day. Respondents are asked to identify their “primary” or main activity if they were engaged in more than one activity at a time.
The Eating & Health Module is a supplementary questionnaire that is conducted immediately after the core ATUS data have been collected. The module asks respondents to report any “secondary” eating occasions, which are defined as eating while engaged in another activity considered primary by the individual, such as watching TV or working. The Eating & Health Module was fielded over two consecutive 3-year periods, in 2006–08 and then again in 2014–16. The researchers used the 2014–16 data to look at both time spent engaged in eating and drinking as a primary activity and eating as a secondary activity. The researchers found distinct differences in time spent eating related to age, education, and body mass index (BMI).
Total time spent in primary eating and drinking and secondary eating increases with age …
On an average day in 2014–16, individuals age 65 and older spent about 20 percent more time eating and drinking as a primary activity than younger age groups—74.6 minutes per day versus an average of 62.1 minutes for those age 18–64. However, people age 65 and older spent about 23 percent less time than younger age groups eating as a secondary activity.
These patterns may be the result of individuals age 65 and older facing less work-related time pressures. In fact, according to 2014–16 ATUS activity data, this age group spent significantly less time in work-related activities relative to younger age groups (50.2 versus 244.5 minutes). People age 65 and older are also less time constrained by child care tasks and children’s schedules. According to the 2014–16 ATUS activity data, less than 1 percent of seniors age 65 and older had children at home. In contrast, 64 percent of 25–54 year olds and 52 percent of 18–24 year olds had children at home.
… and with educational attainment
Individuals with higher levels of education were found to spend more time eating than less-educated individuals. For example, on an average day in 2014–16, people whose formal education ended with a bachelor’s degree spent 71.4 minutes eating and drinking as a primary activity and 18.3 minutes eating as a secondary activity compared with the 60.5 and 15.6 minutes, respectively, spent by individuals whose formal education ended with a high school degree.
Eating out more often may in part explain why higher educated individuals spend more time eating and drinking as a primary activity. ATUS activity data on where primary eating and drinking activities took place in 2014–16 reveal that a significantly higher share of individuals with a bachelor’s degree ate out at restaurants compared with those with a high school degree.
Healthy-Weight Individuals Spend More Time Eating Than Those Who Are Overweight or Obese
Across the BMI range, individuals with a lower BMI spent more time engaged in primary eating and drinking and generally more time eating as a secondary activity. On an average day in 2014–16, healthy-weight individuals age 20 and older spent 67.5 minutes eating and drinking as a primary activity and 18.3 minutes eating as a secondary activity. Higher risk obese individuals spent 58.7 minutes eating and drinking as a primary activity and 15.7 minutes eating as a secondary activity.
These findings suggest that the amount of time people spend eating may play a role in obesity. However, the relationship between time spent eating and weight gain is complex, and further research is needed to gain a better understanding of the underlying mechanisms. Future researchers might consider investigating whether slower eating behavior has a causal impact on the risk of obesity, and whether more education increases eating times.
Adult Eating and Health Patterns: Evidence From the 2014-16 Eating & Health Module of the American Time Use Survey, by Eliana Zeballos and Brandon J. Restrepo, ERS, October 2018