Obese children more vulnerable to food advertising

Rates of childhood obesity have tripled in the past 30 years, and food marketing has been implicated as one factor contributing to this trend. Every year, companies spend more than $10 billion in the US marketing their food and beverages to children; 98% of the food products advertised to children on television are high in fat, sugar, or sodium. In a new study scheduled for publication in The Journal of Pediatrics, researchers used neuroimaging to study the effects of food logos on obese and healthy weight children.

Amanda S. Bruce, PhD, 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 10-14 years, using both self-reported measures of self-control and functional magnetic resonance imaging, which uses blood flow as a measure of brain activity. Dr. Bruce states, “We were interested in how brain responses to food logos would differ between obese and healthy weight children.” The children were shown 60 food logos and 60 nonfood logos, and functional magnetic resonance imaging scans indicated which sections of the brain reacted to the familiar logos being shown.

Obese children showed greater activation in some reward regions of the brain than healthy weight children when shown the food logos. Healthy weight children showed greater brain activation in regions of the brain associated with self-control, when shown food versus nonfood logos. Overall, healthy weight children self-reported more self-control than the obese children. This adds to the body of research showing that in certain situations, healthy weight individuals experience greater activation of control regions of the brain than obese individuals.

“This study provides preliminary evidence that obese children may be more vulnerable to the effects of food advertising. One of the keys to improving health-related decision-making may be found in the ability to improve self-control,” notes Dr. Bruce. Self-control training may be a beneficial addition to obesity and behavioral health interventions, and may lead to greater success in weight loss.

  Approximately 17% (or 12.5 million) of children and adolescents aged 2-19 years are obese.

  Since 1980, obesity prevalence among children and adolescents has almost tripled.

  There are significant racial and ethnic disparities in obesity prevalence among U.S. children and adolescents. In 2007 - 2008, Hispanic boys, aged 2 to 19 years,were significantly more likely to be obese than non-Hispanic white boys, and non-Hispanic black girls were significantly more likely to be obese than non-Hispanic white girls.


Today, about one in three American kids and teens is overweight or obese, nearly triple the rate in 1963. With good reason, childhood obesity is now the No. 1 health concern among parents in the United States, topping drug abuse and smoking.

Among children today, obesity is causing a broad range of health problems that previously weren’t seen until adulthood. These include high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and elevated blood cholesterol levels. There are also psychological effects: Obese children are more prone to low self-esteem, negative body image and depression.

Excess weight at young ages has been linked to higher and earlier death rates in adulthood. Perhaps one of the most sobering statements regarding the severity of the childhood obesity epidemic came from former Surgeon General Richard Carmona, who characterized the threat as follows:

“Because of the increasing rates of obesity, unhealthy eating habits and physical inactivity, we may see the first generation that will be less healthy and have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.”

When defining overweight in children and adolescents, it’s important to consider both weight and body composition.

Among American children ages 2–19, the following are overweight or obese, using the 95th percentile or higher of body mass index (BMI) values on the CDC growth chart:

  For non-Hispanic whites, 31.9 percent of males and 29.5 percent of females.
  For non-Hispanic blacks, 30.8 percent of males and 39.2 percent of females.
  For Mexican Americans, 40.8 percent of males and 35.0 percent of females.


Becky Lindeman

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Elsevier Health Sciences


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