Protect Your Children From Ad-triggered Cravings

Fast food ads hit obesity-prone children harder.

What is it about advertisements for McDonald’s, KFC, or Chipotle that make us suddenly so hungry? Perhaps it’s the hunger-triggering colors (like red and yellow), or the fact that the images awaken our appetite or desire for food-related rewards. Whatever it is, we all know that food advertisements—and especially fast food ads—can be the hardest to ignore. Whether it’s on TV, a billboard, or in a magazine, we can’t help that automatic salivating of our mouths when we see something delicious.

According to a late 2016 study, children with a genetic risk for obesity are even more susceptible to that hunger-triggering effect of fast food ads. If you have a family history of obesity, it’s in your best interest to protect your child. The study, conducted by scientists at Dartmouth College, examined the effects of food cues on the brain of 78 children between the ages of nine and twelve. The children were set to watch a kids’ TV show, and an MRI took a scan of their brains while they watched it. During the TV show, advertisements came on—half related to fast food, the other half non-food-related.

The MRI scans found that children with the obesity-associated gene (FTO) showed a stronger craving response to the food ads. Not only that, but their nucleus accumbens (the region in the brain that controls reward craving) was visibly larger than those of the children without the genotype.

This study proves that the obesity-related FTO gene makes your children more susceptible to the food-related images they see in advertisements. But it’s not just TV or billboard ads you need to be concerned about. Your child will see ads for food and food products when they use their social media (Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, etc.) as well as when surfing the internet.

The good news is that this study revealed the struggle facing children with the obesity-related FTO gene. By understanding that your child is automatically more susceptible to these food cues, you can take steps to protect them. This means avoiding the food cues and training your children to recognize and manage the symptoms of craving. Limiting food advertisement is a good first step toward protecting children from ad-triggered cravings, but parents should also help their children understand what it is about the food cues that is making them feel hungry when they really aren’t.


1. Kristina M. Rapuano, Amanda L. Zieselman, William M. Kelley, James D. Sargent, Todd F. Heatherton, and Diane Gilbert-Diamond, “Genetic risk for obesity predicts nucleus accumbens size and responsivity to real-world food cues,” PNAS, doi:10.1073/pnas.1605548113, published online 19 December 2016.