Infographic: When The Lights Go Out, The World Eats Junk

These remarkable charts show that our eating habits deteriorate as the day goes on. Psychology offers some fascinating reasons why.

I’ve always found it easy to start my day healthy. Greek yogurt and fresh fruit are incredibly satisfying at 8 a.m., punctuated by a carefully crafted cup of black coffee that revs my brain. But by 8 p.m., everything changes. I’m a ravenous satyr, craving the flesh of fatty charred meats and the comforting toasty bite of calorie-laden IPAs. Melted cheese has a particular flare that would nauseate my 8-a.m. self, and the same could be said about anything fried or coated in buffalo sauce.

Apparently I’m not alone, as this infographic showing 24 hours of eating habits around the world will show. Built by Massive Health, it’s an aggregation of 7.68 million self-reported food ratings over a five-month period. It’s a simple, effective heat map that shows, while cultures may all have their own version of junk food, we all manage to dig it up when the sun goes down. Just focus on North America. Green means good food decisions. Yellow is worse. And red is bad.

7 a.m.:

12 p.m.:

4 p.m.:

10 p.m.:

11 p.m.:

Not only do eating trends get worse over time, they get worse in a direct, predictable path. Food decisions at 10 a.m. are worse than at 7 a.m.; at 4 p.m., they’re worse than at 12 p.m., and at 11 p.m. they’re even worse than 10 p.m.

In the interactive version, all you have to do is scroll right to see that, when the lights go out across the globe, every developed region begins to munch on the deplorable. Our species is remarkably predictable, and I can’t help but wonder, what other societal trends would look exactly the same—vandalism, infidelity, shamefully self-reflective Facebook posts—honestly, how many good decisions are any of us making after midnight?

Massive Health’s data is particularly amazing when you consider that experimental psychologists have consistently shown that self-control is a finite resource. For example, studies have shown that the more willpower you exert trying not to eat junk food, the less you’ll be able to resist other temptations. Summarizing that research, John Tierney wrote the following in The New York Times:

The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts, usually in either of two very different ways. One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences. (Sure, tweet that photo! What could go wrong?)

Looking at the charts above, it seems possible that we eventually end up paying for all the good decisions we make early in the morning. As our willpower gets depleted during the course of the day, we succumb to worse and worse decisions in the afternoon and night. The question is: If we know that, can we hack our brains accordingly? One strategy might be to have less and less choices about our food early on in the day: For example, by having someone else make your breakfast and lunch, so that it doesn’t require you to make any sort of choice. But I’m out on a limb here. Would anything ever work, in the long run?

As I wake tomorrow in a Bruce Banner-like fog, covered in Cheetos crumbs and other evidences of my night self’s destructive habits, at least I’ll know that I’m not alone. Somewhere, on the other side of the earth, I have a brother-in-stomach about to make my same bad decisions. I toast this Tums to you.

[Hat tip: FlowingData]

[Image: artemisphoto/Shutterstock]

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  • Jeremiah Stanghini, MBA

    So... I wonder what the potential solution is, then? Make less decisions throughout the day, so as not to fatigue the brain? What would that look like -- outsourcing the majority of one's decisions? Of course, one might prefer to treat the symptom (eating junk food when the lights go out). Although, I think Tim Ferriss' "4-Hour Body" had some good methods for addressing that.

    With Gratitude,


  • vlcinsky

    If we can develop good habits, then we can make the decisions much more effectively. Studies are showing, that those decisions, which are sort of routine ones, are not consuming so much of our "decision energy".
    For me, the only problem is, I do want to develop all the habits at once and after two days, my "decision energy" tank is empty :-(.
    Time to work step by step.

  • Lindy

     This data doesn't seem to account for time zone differences, which means that any deduction is invalid.

  • The Voice Lab

    There is a bias in the fact of the 'available' food. At night, fast food is more readily available than healthy food. This is particularly true for Melbourne, Australia.

  • Yogi Golle

    The problem of eating junk is very well defined in this article, but what is lacking is some creative solutions. Like for example trying to restart your day later in the day with a power nap ... or eliminating as many food choices as possible and keeping a healthy food choice to you really like at all times as a pressure relief option when the junk food monster comes knocking.

  • martykoenig

    Interesting that Colorado stays green throughout. Perhaps that's why we are the #1 lowest obesity, and most active state in the USA. 

  • Sonu Kumar

    I have few problems with the data:
    1. I guess the the majority of world population resides in India and China for which the data is not adequate. 
    2. When you are talking about eating healthy throughout the day, can we have some correlation with the healthy diet in these countries with the occurrence of Obesity, CVD and Diabetes. As India and China tops the world in Diabetic population.

  • krzystoff

    this data about eating healthier early in the morning to kick-start a good day has confirmed by numerous studies echoing the same ideas.
    I have also found that my frequent daily chocolate cravings are mostly quenched by adding a tablespoon of good quality chocolate to my cereal / muesli each day -- for the rest of the day I don't feel the need to indulge.

  • nico

    Well, sleep. Even a 5 minute nap recharges the brain and the body. Having a nap right after work, or during lunch - if you are so lucky to have that as an option - will help tremendously in food choices. Often I find myself eating [progressively crappier] out of fatigue, when what I really need is a rest. 8+ hour workdays aren't really conducive to health, but naps can help a little bit. Or quit your job and become a farmer. Hey, I might do that.

  • AlienforEver

    I like the way you think. People are tired by the end of the day and by then they had also been bombarded with marketing ... so easy to grab a fast food bomb.
    Imagine: think before you eat or actually just think.

  • Guest

    These colors are impossible to see for colorblind people. This chart is not informative to ~8% of the males visiting, for whom the otherwise nice design is a total waste.

  • krzystoff

    so true -- the animated worldmap and many of the other graphics are largely meaningless to most people who are colour-blind/colour-deficient, like myself.  quite disappointing from what appears to be a pretty slick presentation.

  • Sumner Brooks MPH RD

    Will anything ever work (for weight loss and health)?? Yes! - Stopping dieting and restriction (having to use up all your willpower) and focusing on what you want and eating in a way that is comfortable and satisfying. This will work for America. However; we need to get away from the idea that diets are the answer- until then, American's bad eating habits are just fueled by the diet industry. It is a win-win for the diet industry and the food industry, but a loss for the individual health of many Americans. Read more about this on my blog

  • Fran

    Maybe I'm reading the graphics wrong, but it appears to me, that in Europe food choices are healthier in the evening than at lunch or in the afternoon. This would suggest our that eating habits are more linked to availability of healthy vs unhealthy meals and snacks (as suggested by Chaszt) than to some psychological phenomena.

  • Patrick

    Did I miss something? What's the second of the "two very different" shortcuts?