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Food advertisements have a direct mental influence on our unhealthy diet habits, especially in obese teenagers. Many governments have already taken regulatory measures to limit children’s exposure to such advertisements or decrease their effect

In countries all over the world, people view thousands of food commercials per year. Most of these advertisements promote caloric, nutrient-poor foods and fast-food restaurants. These commercials increase our preferences for consumption of unhealthy food and have been identified as an important contributor to the obesity epidemic.

Many studies and research programs are trying to pinpoint the physiological mechanisms through which food marketing may cause obesity. One possibility is that repeated exposure to food commercials activates the brain's reward mechanisms in some people. The activation of specific brain regions causes cravings and, eventually, increased eating — thus contributing to the unhealthy weight gain. 

Brain MRI studies have demonstrated that, in comparison with normal-weight children, obese children show greater responsiveness in the Somatosensory and reward-related regions of the brain to food logo images compared to control images. 

In a recent experiment of such kind, obese adolescents had greater activation in the reward, gustatory and visual processing regions of the brain regions in response to the Coke advertisements compared to non-food advertisements. Habitual Coke consumers showed greater activation in brain regions that encode attention towards Coke’s logo images compared to control images.

Food Adverts Directly Activate Food-Seeking Behavior In Children

The most recent research (Dartmouth study, May 2015) found that food advertisements can stimulate the regions of the brain that control pleasure, taste and, unexpectedly, the mouth in obese teenagers. These adverts have a clear mental influence on the teenagers’ unhealthy diet habits. Those habits can make it difficult to lose weight in the future using healthier diets. The study used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to study brain reactions to two fast food adverts and non-food adverts in obese and normal-weight teenagers between the ages of 12 and 16. 

Commercials were played during the show “The Big Bang Theory” so that the participants couldn’t figure out the purpose of the study. The results show that the regions of the brain involved in attention and reward processing were considerably more active during food commercials compared to non-food commercials. Stronger reward and taste-associated activities of the brain were visible in obese participants compared to their normal-weight counterparts. 

The most unexpected finding in the overweight adolescents was the higher activity of the brain region that controls the movement of their mouths. Practically, this means that the teens were mentally simulating eating while watching the commercials!

Researchers found that all these interesting phenomena are caused by brain chemistry. When someone watches a commercial for delicious food, their brain releases dopamine and other chemical compounds that give pleasure, and frequent repeating of such actions may result in addictive behavior.

The correlation between childhood obesity and televised advertisements for unhealthy food has been widely acknowledged throughout Europe, where the governments of many countries have adopted regulatory measures to either limit children’s exposure to such advertisements or to decrease their effect. It is worth mentioning that the prevalence of childhood obesity is significantly lower in the countries that have introduced such measures compared to the United States

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Yokum S, Gearhardt AN, Harris JL, Brownell KD, Stice E (2014). Individual differences in striatum activity to food commercials predict weight gain in adolescents. Obesity 22(12):2544-51
  • K. M. Rapuano, J. F. Huckins, J. D. Sargent, T. F. Heatherton, W. M. Kelley (2015). Individual Differences in Reward and Somatosensory-Motor Brain Regions Correlate with Adiposity in Adolescents. Cerebral Cortex. doi: 10.1093/cercor/bhv097
  • Mikailova, Milena (2004). Advertising And Childhood Obesity: The Role Of The Federal Government In Limiting Children's Exposure To Unhealthy Food Advertisements. Federal Communications Law Journal 66.2 (2014): 327-356.
  • Ashton D. (2004). Food advertising and childhood obesity. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine.97(2):51-2.
  • Photo courtesy of Mike Saechang via Flickr:
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