Junk Food Ads Alter Children's Brains, Says Study

© Rebecca Nelson / Getty Images

By Gillie Houston Posted August 16, 2016

And food makers spend $1.8 billion a year marketing to kids.

If you have kids, you probably restrict their television choices to keep them from watching inappropriate shows, but a new study says you should really be worried about the commercials. A report published in The Journal of Pediatrics claims that televised food ads alter children's prefrontal cortexes, making them more likely to choose unhealthy foods later.

This should come as no surprise—it's really just a precise way of explaining that advertisements work—but the details are certainly creepy. Researchers at the University of Kansas Medical Center and the University of Missouri in Kansas City assembled a pool of 23 kids, aged 8-14 years. Lead study author Amanda S. Bruce, Ph.D. used MRI machines to monitor the children's brain activity in the prefrontal cortex, where "reward valuation" is determined. Bruce found that while kids tended to favor tasty food over healthy food in general, advertisements amplified this preference signficantly.

"Food commercials may prompt children to consider their liking and wanting of specific food items, irrespective of the lack of any health benefits. The emphasis on taste may make it even more difficult for relevant caregivers to encourage healthy food choices," the report says.

According to Medical News Today, around $1.8 billion is spent each year marketing food to children, and even the youngest kids—between ages 2-5—probably see more than 1,000 advertisements per year. For teens, that figure doubles.

Over the last 30 years, obesity has doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Though many countries have placed bans or limits on marketing food to children, the U.S. hasn't taken any such steps despite evidence that advertisements could be feeding the obesity beast. In addition to Bruce's study, research has found that children who are overweight are more responsive to food marketing, and children who are exposed to advertisements tend to prefer branded food—and a lot of it.

How can you combat the brain-altering affects of big-budget junk food ads? We know it's easier said than done, but it's never a bad time to turn off the T.V. and cook something.

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