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]