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Obese Children More Susceptible to Food Advertising

A new study finds that food logos have a powerful effect on children’s brains.

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McDonald's sign-- by Suzanne Boothby

The Gist

Obese children seem to have less self-control when they see food logos, according to a new study published in The Journal of Pediatrics.

Researchers used neuroimaging to study how the brain responds to food logos versus non-food logos in obese and healthy weight children. They found that obese children had more activity in the reward regions of their brain, while healthy weight children showed greater brain activation in regions of the brain associated with self-control.

Overall, healthy weight children self-reported more self-control than the obese children, according to the study. This research adds to the growing evidence that in certain situations, healthy weight individuals experience greater activation of control regions of the brain than obese individuals.

The Expert Take

“This study provides preliminary evidence that obese children may be more vulnerable to the effects of food advertising,” said study author Dr. Amanda S. Bruce, Ph.D. “One of the keys to improving health-related decision-making may be found in the ability to improve self-control.”

Self-control training may be a beneficial addition to obesity and behavioral health interventions, and may lead to greater success in weight loss, she added.

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine is one group working to bring more awareness to food advertising and children. Children and teenagers see up to 7,600 food commercials each year and almost none are for fruits or vegetables, according to their research.

“Kids shouldn’t have to dodge cholesterol bombs packaged in colorful, toy-filled boxes,” said PCRM nutrition education director Dr. Susan Levin, M.S., R.D. “We’re losing the war against childhood obesity, but fast-food chains are still making obscene profits by targeting children with high-fat meals.” 

Source and Method

Bruce and colleagues from the University of Missouri-Kansas City and the University of Kansas Medical Center assessed 10 healthy weight and 10 obese children, ages 10 to 14 years old, using both self-reported measures of self-control and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which uses blood flow as a measure of brain activity.

The children were shown 60 food logos and 60 nonfood logos, and fMRI scans indicated which sections of the brain reacted to the familiar logos being shown.

The Takeaway

With scientific research showing obese children are more vulnerable to food advertising, the message is clear: more can be done to help children maintain healthier weights. Childhood obesity rates have tripled in the last 30 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Every year, companies spend more than $10 billion marketing their food and beverages to American children. About 98 percent of the food products advertised to children on television are high in fat, sugar, or sodium.

Other Research

A 2010 study published in the International Journal of Obesity found that obese children are “hyper-responsive to food stimuli as compared with [healthy weight] children.” It concluded “that many areas implicated in normal food motivation are hyper-responsive in obese groups.”

study from from 2010 by Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity found that kids are more attracted to junk food when a cartoon celebrity is on the package.

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Tags: Awareness , Latest Studies & Research , Public Health & Policy

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The Healthline Editorial team writes about the latest health news, policy, and research.

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