Fast Food Nation: Americans Cook Less Than Any Developed Country

(Image credit: Dreamstime)

The United States is the birthplace of the Hot Pocket and the Pop-Tart. Americans want food, and we want it five minutes ago. So it's no wonder that a recent survey gauging societal norms in 34 countries revealed that Americans spend the least amount of time cooking per day: Just 30 minutes.

The report, from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), enlisted social agencies in member countries to collect primary data, which the OECD then compiled for comparison, said Simon Chapple, a senior economist in the organization's Social Policy Division. "We made sure that we're comparing American apples to Canadian apples to French apples," he said.

[INFOGRAPHIC: A Day in the Life of the Average American]

Measures of time spent cooking, for example, came from national time-use surveys. These surveys asked participants to record their activities in five-minute intervals in a journal. "Do you call in a pizza or do you make it yourself? Typically, we count if you buy a pizza," Chapple said, noting the usual metrics for economic prosperity, such as GDP. "But if you make it, we don't."

This report also includes measures of unpaid services. For example, it lists statistics on volunteering, giving money and helping strangers. The U.S. fared much more favorably in this measure: 60 percent of respondents said they had volunteered in the month previous to being surveyed, the largest percentage of any country.

The OECD also recorded household chores such as time spent shopping, where the French took the lead, spending some 32 minutes shopping a day.

Understanding the multiple reasons behind any of these statistics is complex, Chapple told Life's Little Mysteries, but he noted that researchers might look again to food, or frequent grocery visits, to explain French shopping habits. The report also found that the French spent the most time of survey respondents eating and drinking, more than two hours a day, so perhaps they need extra shopping time to stock up.

The report actually included several metrics related to food, including time spent cooking, time spent eating, and obesity rates. Interestingly, researchers found that about one-third of people in the U.S. are obese — which leads the way among other countries — despite ranking in the lowest third for the amount of time spent eating, at one hour and 14 minutes per day.

These measures of U.S. obesity and time spent eating are "paradoxical and probably unrelated," said David Levitsky, a professor of nutrition and psychology at Cornell University. He suspected that the effect likely came from inaccurate measurement of the time spent eating, as the fat content of the food that Americans eat is not considerably higher than that found in food in other countries. Chapple said that some countries' measures of eating time included time socializing with friends and family.

Besides short eating times paired with high obesity rates, the report also had some curious findings related to health spending and life expectancy. People in the U.S. spent the most on health care, some 16 percent of the GDP. This is not news. A 2007 report from the World Health Organization also showed that the U.S. spent the most of all member countries on health — with costs totaling around $6,100 per person per year.

But the U.S. did not set any life expectancy records: At 78 years, Americans' life expectancy is about one year less than the OECD average and about four years lower than Japan, which had the highest life expectancy.

"The issue really is what's happening in the broader system," Chapple said, noting again that the causes required more research. "Some reasons," he said, "don't have a lot to do with how much you spend on the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff."

This story was provided by Life's Little Mysteries, a sister site to LiveScience.

Life's Little Mysteries Contributor