This is your brain on food commercials…

By Ashley N. Gearhardt

Gooey chocolate and scoops of mouth-watering chocolate ice cream. Steaming hot golden French fries. Children see thousands of commercials each year designed to increase their desire for foods high in sugar, fat, and salt like those mentioned above. Yet, we know almost nothing about how this advertising onslaught might be affecting the brain.

A recent study in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience conducted by researchers from the University of Michigan, Oregon Research Institute, and Yale University starts to uncover how the brain responds to food commercials in teens. Thirty adolescents visited a lab to watch a typical television show that included commercial breaks composed of frequently advertised food (e.g., McDonald’s, Wendy’s) and non-food commercials (e.g., AT&T, Ford). But unlike a typical TV viewing experience, these participants had their brain response measured in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner.

While watching the food commercials, regions of the brain linked with reward, attention, and cognition were more active for all participants. After completing the fMRI scan, teens also remembered the food commercials better than the non-food commercials. Why does this matter? It appears that food advertisements (by far the most frequently marketed product to this age group) are better at getting into the mind and memory of kids. This makes sense because our brains are hard-wired to get excited in response to delicious foods. When these calorie-laden products are combined with $1 billion dollars’ worth of marketing by the food and beverage industry, it creates a potent combination.

Surprisingly, healthy-weight teens had greater brain activity in regions associated with reward and attention than obese adolescents. Why might this be? The study suggests that obese adolescents may have been trying to control their response to the food commercials, which might have altered the way their brain responded.

Yet, what happens after obese teens come into contact with more and more food cues later that day? Their self-control might decline in the face of an environment that pushes consumption of high-calorie foods. If a teen is stressed, hungry, or depressed, his or her willpower might be even more likely to falter. The healthy-weight adolescents might also be impacted by how their brain responds to food commercials, but the consequences might not be apparent immediately. A number of brain regions that were more responsive in the lean adolescents during the food commercials have been linked with future weight gain. It will be important to explore how brain responses to food marketing might be related to increased risk of obesity in the future.

This research highlights the possible ways that food advertising may affect younger generations. How do we prevent food advertisers from being the major driver of what our kids eat? We can rely solely on parents to police what teenagers buy or attempt to educate children about how advertising might impact them. We also may need to set guidelines that prevent marketers from aggressively targeting kids with commercials for unhealthy foods. The road ahead is not without challenges, but action must be taken to turn back the tide of childhood obesity.

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