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Why obese children can't resist some food ads

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Brain imaging shows why obese children more vulnerable to food ads

When children who are obese see food ads, they’re more likely to want it, finds a new study. Researchers mapped brain activity among obese and normal weight children to uncover what spurs overweight kids to want to eat even more.

In the past decade rising rates of obesity among children has become a public health issue. The message to parents, schools and anyone working with children has been to focus on ways to curb the problem.

Why children are become more obese has been a puzzle. Suggestions include lack of parenting, genes and even too much TV and computer time that promotes less activity and lack of sleep that interferes with healthy metabolism.

There has also been much debate about how and if the food industry might be contributing to soaring rates of obesity in children.

Children who are obese are at high risk for future health problems that include heart disease, diabetes and perhaps even cancer.

The National Center for Health Statistics reports that 17 percent of children are overweight and likely to become overweight or obese adults.

The new study suggests children who already have problems with weight can’t resist food logos and ads that include the likes of high in fat, sugar and sodium laden foods that they’re exposed to on the internet and TV, via texts messaging, in movies and from video and computer games.

According to the HBO special “The Weight of the Nation”, the food industry spends $1.6 billion to market foods to children each year that include “…energy-dense fast foods, carbonated soft drinks, sugary breakfast cereals, salty snacks and baked goods, which tend to be high in fats, sugars and salt, and are nutrient-poor.”

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Some of the ads target parents as well, marketing sugary cereals as sources of fiber. vitamins and whole grains.

For the study, Amanda S. Bruce, PhD, and colleagues from the University of Missouri-Kansas City and the University of Kansas Medical Center studied 10 obese and 10 healthy weight children to compare what happens in the brain in response to stimulus from food logos.

Bruce said in a press release, “We were interested in how brain responses to food logos would differ between obese and healthy weight children."

Obese children showed activation in some reward areas of the brain. But normal weight children’s brain became more activated in regions linked to self-control. They also reported more self-control.

The children were shown 60 food logos and 60 nonfood logos and then underwent functional MRI to find out what sections of the brain reacted to food logos that were familiar.

Bruce says the study highlights the importance of helping kids with self-control that can in turn lead to healthier weights, though the findings are preliminary. She suggests obesity and behavioral health interventions that might help with weight loss.

The study shows obese children can’t resist some food logos and that they are more vulnerable to food ads, compared to children of healthy weight. The finding lends support to the notion that the food industry contributes to childhood obesity in ways that may have been previously unknown.

Journal of Pediatrics
November 30, 2012

Image credit: Wikimedia commons