Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity
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Rudd Radar

Food Commercials Excite Teen Brains

May 7, 2013

Regardless of body weight, teens had high brain activity during food commercials compared to nonfood commercials, according to researchers from the University of Michigan, the Oregon Research Institute, and the Rudd Center. The study, which appears in the current issue of Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, may inform the current debates about the impact of food advertising on minors.

Children see thousands of commercials each year designed to increase their desire for foods high in sugar, fat, and salt. Researchers analyzed how the advertising onslaught affects the brain by measuring the brain activity of teenagers while watching food and nonfood commercials.

Regions of the brain linked to attention, reward, and taste were active for all participants, especially when food commercials aired. Overall, they recalled and liked food commercials better than nonfood commercials.

Teens whose weight was considered normal had greater reward-related brain activity when viewing the food commercials compared to obese teens. Gearhardt said this suggests that all teenagers, even those who are not currently overweight, are affected by food advertising and that exposure could lead to future weight gain in normal-weight youth.

The study concluded that obese participants may attempt to control their response to food commercials, which might alter the way their brain responds. But if these teens are bombarded with frequent food cues, their self-control might falter, especially if they feel stressed, hungry, or depressed. Gearhardt said brain regions that are more responsive in lean adolescents during food commercials have been linked to future weight gain.

The study's co-authors were Sonja Yokum, PhD, and Eric Stice, PhD, both from the Oregon Research Institute, and the Rudd Center’s Jennifer Harris, PhD, and Kelly Brownell, PhD. The study was funded by the Rudd Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and National Institute of Health.