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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.

Dr. Ashley N. Gearhardt is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. Her work focuses on the overlap between addictive and eating behaviors, as well as the role of the environment in obesity. Gearhardt is a co-author of the study ‘Relation of Obesity to Neural Activation in Response to Food Commercials‘, which is published by the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience (SCAN) provides a home for the best human and animal research that uses neuroscience techniques to understand the social and emotional aspects of the human mind and human behavior.

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Image credit: French fries. By dja65, via iStockphoto

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2 Responses to “This is your brain on food commercials…”
  1. Annie Morgan says:

    To say nothing about getting them away from their cell phones and computers which, in my elderly opinion, is even more important. If they run and play – sports, competitive or otherwise, or just getting out and walking, riding bikes – it wouldn’t matter so much what they stuffed themselves with.

    I do think, though, urban teens are far more likely to be obese. Where do they go to get this exercise? Loitering around the mall isn’t good, but even there, they’re on their phones chatting or playing finger games, not walking about. Now the malls discourage them anyway. Do we still have pool halls?

    There’s so much more to this than just banning advertising unhealthy food. None of it is that unhealthy if eaten in moderation by active people.

    And then one asks whether the banning of books containing gastronomical delights will be next on the list.

    Certainly ‘curtailing’ the advertisement of unhealthy food seems a fine idea, but ‘banishment’ just leads to more of the same for the next thing that hasn’t been properly thought out over the long term.

  2. Is amaizing how the brain works. I am from Spain, here the term “neuromarketing” is being very mentioned. The companies are investing money in investigations about how the customers brain works and how it responde to the diferent stimuli.

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