University of Texas at Austin economist Daniel Hamermesh used data from the American Time Use Survey from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics to examine how much time Americans spend eating meals each day and how much time they spend "grazing" - snacking or drinking while working, watching TV or doing some other activity.
"When their time becomes more valuable, people substitute grazing for eating, essentially switching to multi-tasking," Hamermesh said. "Overall, better health is associated with more time spent eating, but especially with spreading that time over more meals per day."
Hamermesh found that more than half of all adults graze each day, with their grazing time almost equaling the time they spend eating meals. The average American adult spends about two-and-a-half hours eating or grazing every day.
Among the other findings:
• Men graze less but spend more time eating meals than women, a finding that Hamermesh said was surprising because men are more likely to be in the workforce, and grazing while working is commonplace. In all, men spend about three-and-a-half more minutes a day eating meals than women.
• Better-educated people eat more frequently, spend more total time eating, graze more frequently and spend more total time grazing than those with less education. Workers with a post-graduate education, for example, spend about 25 more minutes a day eating meals than high school dropouts.
• Higher earners also spend more time eating individual meals, graze more frequently and spend more time during each individual grazing episode. A worker who earns $75,000 per year spends five more minutes more per day eating, and almost the same extra time grazing, than one who earns $25,000.
• Those who spend more time eating have a lower body mass index (BMI), on average, and view themselves as healthier than those who spend less time eating. The impact on BMI appears to come from eating more frequently and spreading the impact of the food over more meals. Spreading eating time across another meal is associated with a BMI that is 0.2 lower—not huge, but still a few pounds less for a person of average height.
Hamermesh has done extensive research using data from the American Time Use Survey. He has also done research on labor demand, time use, social insurance programs and unusual applications of labor economics to such areas suicide, sleep, beauty and other subjects.
A copy of the report is available at http://www.nber.org/papers/w15277.