Fast-Food Ad Familiarity Making Kids Fat?

Research recently presented at the Pediatric Academic Societies (PAS) annual meeting in Boston revealed familiarity with fast food commercials can increase the likelihood young adults will be overweight.

If you ever got one of those annoying jingles stuck in your head, you know exactly how powerful advertising can be. Fast food restaurants spend billions a year, and guess what? Those ads aren’t aimed at you; they’re mostly targeted at children and adolescents.

“This study links obesity in young people to familiarity with this advertising,” said lead author Dr. Auden C. McClure, “suggesting that youth who are aware of and receptive to televised fast-food marketing may be at risk for health consequences.”

Researchers here surveyed a national sample of over 3,000 15 – 23 year olds.

Among the questions researchers asked included how much participants exercised, how many sugary drinks they consumed, how often they ate fast food, how much TV they watched, and whether they snacked while watching TV.

Then researchers showed these young adults 20 still images from fast-food TV ads. They digitally removed the brands, so participants had no written cues what fast food restaurant these commercials advertised.

Participants responded whether they liked the ad, if they recall seeing it before, and whether they could name the restaurant brand.

You probably aren’t shocked to learn young adults most vulnerable to weight gain were more likely to recognize these ads.

Even after researchers controlled study variables, participants who recognized the most TV ads were over twice as likely to be obese compared with participants who couldn’t recall as many ads.

Now, here’s the thing. These young adults also viewed alcohol ads, but researchers didn’t find any connection there.

In other words, whether the young adults were overweight or not didn’t factor into their recognition for alcohol ads, but it sure did for fast-food commercials.

Additionally, how often participants ate fast food didn’t factor into their chance of being overweight.

Nope, simply recognizing these commercials proved the key factor whether young adults had a weight problem.

“After accounting for overall TV time,” Dr. McClure concluded, “TV ad familiarity was still linked with obesity suggesting that this finding is not simply due to increased sedentary time or an effect of TV programming.”

I realize familiarity with TV fast-food ads is simply one piece of a complicated puzzle to understanding obesity in high school and college aged kids. Numerous factors contribute to this (pardon the pun) ever-growing problem, including peer pressure, stress, and inactivity.

But this study shows advertising also powerfully impacts the food choices teenagers make. Advertisers know this too. Otherwise, why would they invest such ridiculous amounts of money into silly jingles and TV commercials?

I know how hard it can be to encourage young adults to eat healthy, particularly when they’re on the go and fast food often provides quick, delicious, peer-approved sustenance.

You can’t control what your adolescents eat when they’re not at home, but you can set a positive impact with a pantry and fridge stocked with healthy on-the-go foods.

Hint: don’t make the boxes of Pepperidge Farm cookies available and they won’t grab them.

Celebrity nutritionist and fitness expert JJ Virgin often talks about lateral shifts. Rather than depriving your kids of their favorite foods, you upgrade to something equally satisfying but more nutrient rich and lower in sugar. I’ll leave you with seven easy-to-incorporate lateral shifts:

  1. Swap peanut butter for almond butter – a more nutrient-rich alternative with no added sugar or trans fat.
  2. Swap sugary sodas for seltzer water – your kids will get that same satisfying fizz without the soda’s sugar. Buy lemon or lime if they need some flavor.
  3. Swap cheeseburgers and fries for grass-fed burgers and sweet potato fries – just as satisfying as a McDonald’s meal but far more nutritious.
  4. Swap candy and chips for nuts – you get the same crunch with more nutrients and less sugar.
  5. Swap breakfast junk food for a protein smoothie – rather than grabbing a pastry or bagel, you can keep protein powder, berries, and coconut milk to fix a fast, filling breakfast.
  6. Swap candy bars for dark chocolate – sure, it’s an acquired taste, but your teens will get less sugar and more antioxidants in the darker stuff.
  7. Swap frozen entrees for leftovers – keep lean protein and green vegetables in containers that your kids can warm up when they’re hungry.