Much of the current research and policy aimed at understanding and mitigating disparities in diet quality between low-income and higher-income consumers has focused on food price and availability as barriers to healthy eating. Data on how consumers allocate their time could elucidate the relationship between food choice and the food environment, and also help researchers and policymakers understand relationships between time constraints and dietary quality. This research examines the influence of time constraints on the nutritional quality of purchased foods. This observational study analyzes data on food purchases from USDA's Food Acquisition and Purchase Survey of a nationally representative group of U.S. households. Our outcome measure was dietary quality, measured using the Healthy Eating Index 2010. Multivariate models assessed the influence of an objective (time spent in round-trip travel to work) and perceived (feeling too busy to prepare healthy food) time constraint on the quality of foods purchased by households. The perceived time constraint is found to be associated with a 2.5-point reduction in HEI score. Further, this relationship exists for higher-income households (those above 400% of the poverty line) and not low-income households. Perceptions of being time-constrained influence the healthfulness of purchased foods while the objective time constraint does not. This relationship holds only for higher-income households, suggesting that they are better able to substitute money for time and likely eat out more often than time-constrained, low-income households. We recommend policy solutions, such as menu labeling and nutrition education that highlights time management skills and healthier convenience food substitutions.

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