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 USDA’s rich science and research portfolio.
Time is a limited resource. Deciding on how to utilize each minute in your 24-hour day is crucial. However, the choice between using a portion of the day for food shopping, cooking, and cleaning up versus grabbing a fast food meal can have implications for our health and diet quality as well as other aspects of well-being. While fast-food purchases may save time, they have been linked to Americans’ poor diet quality and expanding waistlines.
Time-use patterns may provide clues as to what motivates fast-food purchases and in this way may help inform policies and other initiatives aimed at improving Americans’ diet quality. Recently, we used time-use diaries from a nationally representative survey to examine how the time-use decisions of those who purchase fast food on a given day differ from the average of the U.S. population.
For this study, we defined a fast-food purchaser as a person who bought food or drink at a restaurant with counter service; that is, the customer paid before consuming the food or beverage purchased. We found that over 2003-2011, those who purchased fast food on an average day spent 57.2 minutes eating and drinking, compared with 67.5 minutes for all consumers.
Moreover, fast-food purchasers were more likely than others to report no time spent on eating or drinking as a main activity. Instead, some engaged in “secondary eating”—i.e., grabbing something to eat during a main activity such as watching television or getting dressed for work. And fast-food purchasers were more likely than U.S. consumers on average to engage in secondary eating while at work or while driving a vehicle.
We also found that fast-food purchasers work more and sleep less. Those who purchased fast food were more likely to spend less time sleeping—on average 23 minutes a day less than the total population average. This is a considerable difference in the world of time-use averages, and other research has found that less sleep is associated with poorer food choices.
Further discussion on the time-use patterns of fast-food purchasers, as well as shifts in fast food purchasing behavior following the 2007-09 recession, can be found in our recent ERS report, The Role of Time in Fast-Food Purchasing Behavior in the United States.