Eat Fast, Get Fat?

weight by time eating nyt

As someone who fights with quick hotel and airplane meals as a part of my livelihood I found this chart unsurprising. It’s known that eating fast doesn’t give your brain time to get the “all full” signal so you can eat more calories – especially if you are eating calorically-dense fast foods. This chart was created by Catherine Rampell of Economix who describes her methodology:

Here I’ve plotted out the relationship between time the average person in a given country spends eating and that country’s obesity rate (as measured by the percentage of the national population with a body mass index higher than 30).

There was no cartogram of this data. However, I felt this cartogram of 2004 McDonalds restaurants (which serves calorically-dense foods) from Worldmapper certainly helps us understand the US’s high-ranking.

worldmapper - International Fast Food

There are other fast food chains and sources of calories around the world so the cartogram doesn’t support Catherine’s other findings. I really debated including the cartogram in the post as I don’t want to confuse the data sets. Let me know if I made the right decision.

(via the ever-excellent PSFK)

  • Bill

    It’s nice to see a scatter plot. But what are the 95% confidence interval min and max ? I bet you can argue that the trend line is flat.

  • didn’t know that people in Turkey spend the most time while eating.

  • Also, it’s because you’re allowing more time for the food to move from the small intestine to the large one. That’s why I love 3-hour French meals (smaller, but successive portions) or mezze eating like (in Turkey) where you eat slowly a variety of small bite food. By the time you’re still eating, you start digesting what you starting eating.

  • There is a difference between “time spent eating” and “fast food”, right?

    Technically, one could take a long time to eat a McDonalds burger. Thus eat fast food at a slow pace.

  • I’ve heard something about enzymes in your saliva also being helpful in digesting food. If you just shovel it in there, you’re not really enjoying eating anyway.

  • brady forrest


    You *could* eat a fast food burger slowly, but do you? The restaurants are not designed for ambiance: the chairs are hard, the music is loud, the colors are garish. The food and the food experience are designed for fast turnover.

    Check out Michael Pollan’s excellent Omnivore’s Dilemna or Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation for more on this.

  • Julie

    You can also eat healthy food quickly, or in my case without paying much attention to it. There are enough data points off the line in that plot that I am not sure the conclusion is valid for just the one variable.

    What happens if you eat a really healthy meal quickly? What if before or after the meal you take a nice long 2-hour walk with your dog and in fact having time for the walk is why you eat quickly, not because you are eating fast food?

    After all, the leanest people are closer to those in the US on time spent eating than to those in Turkey.

  • @Julie

    Very true, however how often do you eat a healthy meal really quickly? Many Americans eat fast food and they eat it quickly. Of course people *could* eat quickly so that they could take a two-hour walk, but do they?

  • James

    Here’s my solution:

    Paleo Diet + CrossFit +

  • I concur with Bill. This is likely a very poor correlation. Wouldn’t you think diet had something to do with BMI?

    Perhaps O’Reilly Media could publish

    “The Slow Eating Diet…in a Nutshell” ;)

  • Steve B

    I think you could argue the pattern is “speak English, get fat”. Except Mexico, the only countries above the OECD average are predominantly English-speaking.

  • @Steve B re: English

    I’d say that’s corollary to the influence of American eating / living habits influencing those countries longer than the others. Fast food surely also migrated to English-speaking countries first, and has had more time to inflate the BMI’s there.

    But the whole slow-eating correlation is itself not likely causal. I’d wager that countries that encourage slow-eating live generally healthier lifestyles. If you make time to spend upwards of 90 minutes a day eating, you likely make sure that you are eating high quality food and make time to do other health-supporting activities.

  • But how to explain Canada and Mexico, both of whom that less time to eat but rate less in terms of obesity? Perhaps the number of fast food places per capita would help. Also, the use of artificial ingredients, prepared food sales. I think its too easy to just say eat slow. There must be other factors, such as the level of stress, income to debt ratio, number of weeks alotted for vacations, etc.

  • anonymous

    Maybe gravity is higher in North America?

  • Anonymous

    Don’t all of you think that this can be verified only after consistently experiencing it…..I mean for a period of time….try eating fast…..and then see the results…..:-)

  • If you eat high calorie food very slowly, then what will happen?
    I am not agree with it that fat is the reason of fast eating.

  • Really interesting reading. As others I had no idea Mexican habits were to eat that fast, though I knew they were kind of fat, generally speaking. Now I have an explanation…And seriously: eat well for breakfast, a bit at lunch and light at dinner and it’ll go well ;)

  • brady forrest


    If you eat high-fat food slowly you will get the “all full” signal sooner and you will probably eat less.

  • Sam A

    Liars figure and figures lie. These figures obviously want to communicate something…ask yourself what is this article trying to say?
    That America is full of fat people.
    America is evil because they are fat.
    American should be more like the rest of the world.
    Asia is great and America is not.
    Europe except for Great Britain is great.

  • John Murphy

    The chart is quite alarming and probably true. However, I think using the BMI as a standard for any study is a bit off base.