This post is part of the Science Tuesday feature series on the USDA blog. Check back each week as we showcase stories and news from the USDA’s rich science and research portfolio.
We all have the same 24 hours in a day and must decide how to spend those hours. Time-use decisions in the short run can have long-run consequences. For example, skipping meals or constantly grabbing unhealthy snacks can affect our health and productivity. Americans’ eating patterns are of particular interest to nutrition professionals. Are we a Nation of grazers who snack throughout the day? Are we mindlessly eating while doing other things? How often do we sit down for a family meal—not counting Thanksgiving dinner?
To better understand Americans’ eating behavior, the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Cancer Institute funded a set of questions in the 2006-08 American Time Use Survey (ATUS). The survey was already collecting time spent in primary eating and drinking, that is, eating and drinking as an individual’s main activity. However, my ERS colleagues and I also wanted to know how much time, and where and when, people were eating and drinking while doing something else.
Looking at the survey responses, we found that on an average day (2006-08), Americans age 15 or older spent 67 minutes in primary eating and drinking. An additional 23.5 minutes were spent eating while doing something else considered primary, and 63 minutes were spent drinking beverages while doing something else. This secondary eating and drinking most commonly occurred while people were watching television, followed by engaging in paid work. Other frequently reported primary activities while eating or drinking were preparing meals, cleaning up afterwards, and grooming (such as getting dressed).
Although eating while engaged in another activity may be perceived as a bad health habit, not all secondary eating was associated with negative health outcomes. Those who ate or drank while working, driving, preparing meals/cleaning up, or grooming had an average body mass index (BMI) at or below the U.S. average, while those who ate or drank while watching television had a higher than average BMI. Nonetheless, the association between secondary eating/drinking and BMI doesn’t prove cause and effect. It may not be the multitasking aspect of eating that affects health, but rather the specific patterns of eating, other activities, and food choices.
The ERS and National Cancer Institute survey supplement also included queries about time spent grocery shopping and preparing meals, and whether respondents received SNAP assistance (formerly known as food stamps) or school-provided meals. All of these responses provide a rich data source for researchers to investigate Americans’ eating patterns. More information can be found in our report, Americans' Eating Patterns and Time Spent on Food: The 2014 Eating & Health Module Data.