Childhood Obesity and Media Advertisements

This article is published as part of Nutri Inspector’s scholarship application by Abby Opher who studies Human Nutrition at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.

More recently, childhood overweight and obesity has become a pressing issue in the U.S. In the 1963-1970 period, only 4 percent of children aged 6 to 11 years were defined as being overweight. By 1999, the percentage of overweight children more than tripled to 13 percent (Chou). The cause of this great spike has been a subject of controversy, but environmental factors are known to have a large influence on weight (Dubois One environmental variable that is widely discussed is junk food television advertisements aimed at children. These advertisements pose a threat to children who are easily impressed upon by fast food and junk food giants that encourage unhealthy eating habits. The U.S. should consider banning junk food advertisements because children who watch junk food advertisements are more likely to have increased BMI (Chou) and consume more calories (Halford, children are more susceptible to false claims from advertisements than adults are (American Academy of Pediatrics, Nestle), and countries who have instated a ban successfully reduced obesity rates (Tsai).

A study conducted by Chou used advertising information from Competitive Media Reporting (CRM), an advertisement tracking service, and isolated the annual number of seconds of fast-food restaurant messages aired on television for a multitude of fast food restaurants. The researchers then correlated the data with the BMIs of children age 3-18. They concluded that there is a positive and significant relationship between advertising and children’s body mass index. Increasing exposure to fast food advertising by a half hour per week will increase a boy’s BMI by 0.30 kg/m 2 (or 2 percent) and a girl’s BMI by 0.12 kg/m 2 (or 1 percent), which is statistically significant. The study then goes on to determine that a ban on junk food advertisements would reduce the number of overweight children ages 3-11 in a fixed population by 10 percent and would reduce the number of overweight adolescents ages 12-18 by 12 percent (Chou).

While Chou’s research studied the correlation between BMI and fast food advertisements, a different study by Halford analyzed the effects fast food advertisements have on caloric intake in children. Researchers found that exposure to food adverts increases energy intake in young children regardless of their weight status (Halford The study was conducted by showing children age 5-7 cartoons interspersed with fast food advertisements and then providing the children with snap options of varying nutrition. Total calories intake was significantly higher after the food advertisements were shown. Children of normal weight exposed to the food advertisements ate 14% more calories than the children of normal weight who only watched cartoons. Children who were overweight or obese and were exposed to the food advertisements ate 17% more calories (Halford Since a higher caloric intake results in weight gain, it is no surprise that multiple studies have found a correlation, if not causation, between fast food advertisements and childhood obesity.

The American Academy of Pediatrics takes it one step further and attempts to explain why children are more impressible than adults. Children younger than eight years old are cognitively and psychologically defenseless against advertising. They do not understand the notion of intent to sell and frequently accept advertising claims at face value (American Academy of Pediatrics). Fast food advertisers understand this claim and take advantage of susceptible children through television. Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor at New York University, explains that some campaigns aim to convince children that they know more about what they are “supposed to” eat than their parents do. Consequently, children often report that they themselves, instead of their parents, decide what to eat (Nestle). Without television advertisements, and even advertising on other devices, children would not be psychologically tricked into making unhealthy food choices.

This claim can be demonstrated by Quebec’s 1980 restriction on junk-food marketing to kids. Fast food marketing aimed at children under 13 in print and electronic media was completely banned. As a consequence, fast-food expenditures subsequently decreased 13 percent (Tsai), demonstrating the pervasiveness of advertising to children. While the rest of Canada saw a drastic increase in obesity among children since 1980, Quebec maintains the lowest child obesity rate (Ciciora). By looking toward countries, like Quebec, that have had success in managing obesity, it becomes clear that the U.S. should consider banning fast food advertisement to children.

The evidence is clear—media advertising of fast food to children is a factor in the childhood obesity epidemic. Whether the correlation appears between advertisements and BMI (Chou) or advertisements and caloric consumption (Halford, the correlation is clear. Analyzing Quebec’s advertisement ban shows much success in reducing obesity, which can be replicated in the U.S. Although a fast food advertisement ban would be met with resistance from fast food giants, it is a policy that should be considered for the future of our country.


  • “Children, Adolescents, and Advertising.” American Academy of Pediatrics Aa8.6 (2006): 2563-569. Web. 27 Feb. 2017.
  • Chou, Shin-Yi, Inas Rashad, and Michael Grossman. “Fast-Food Restaurant Advertising on Television and Its Influence on Childhood Obesity.” National Bureau of Economic Research, Dec. 2005. Web. 22 Feb. 2017.
  • Ciciora, Phil. “Study: Quebec Ban on Fast-food Ads Reduced Consumption of Junk Food.”Illinois News Bureau. N.p., 19 Jan. 2012. Web. 27 Feb. 2017.
  • Dubois, Lisa, “Genetic and Environmental Contributions to Weight, Height, and BMI from Birth to 19 Years of Age: An International Study of Over 12,000 Twin Pairs.” Public Library of Science. N.p. 8 Feb. 2012. Web. 27 Feb. 2017
  • Halford, Jason C.G, Emma J. Boyland, Georgina Hughes, Lorraine Oliveira, and Terence M. Dovey. “Beyond-brand Effect of Television (TV) Food Advertisements/commercials on Caloric Intake and Food Choice of 5–7-year-old Children.” Appetite 49.1 (2007): 263-67. Web. 22 Feb. 2017.
  • Nestle, Marion. “Food Marketing and Childhood Obesity — A Matter of Policy.” The New England Journal of Medicine 354 (2006): 2527-529. Web. 23 Feb. 2017.
  • Tsai, Marisa. “8 Countries Taking Action Against Junk Food Marketing.” Alternet. N.p., 27 June 2016. Web. 27 Feb. 2017.
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