Healthy Kids and the Lure of Fast-Food Ads

June 17, 2011
Lebanon, NH

Anna Adachi-Mejia, PhD

Anna Adachi-Mejia, PhD

Dartmouth Study Shows Normal-Weight Adolescents Most Receptive to Fast-Food Ads

New research from Dartmouth shows that normal-weight adolescents, not overweight adolescents, may be the most vulnerable to television advertising promoting consumption of unhealthy foods.

Lead author Anna Adachi-Mejia, PhD, said she had actually expected an opposite result. Because most food TV advertisements are for food of minimal nutritional value, and because adolescent preferences for food advertisements is considered an indicator of receptivity to food advertising, Dr. Adachi-Mejia thought that adolescent receptivity to food advertisements would be a predictor of adolescent overweight. Results of the study, however, provide "preliminary evidence that there should be concern about normal-weight adolescents being receptive to unhealthful food advertisements," she commented.

The study, "Adolescent Weight Status and Receptivity to Food TV Advertisements," now published online in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, examined the relationship between the weight status of adolescents and their receptivity to food advertisements. The research involved nearly 2,300 adolescents aged 10-13 in New Hampshire and Vermont, who were asked to name their favorite television commercial. Less than one-fifth of all the respondents named a food advertisement as their favorite, but most of the food ads named (89.6 percent) were for less-healthful foods. While nearly 36 percent of the adolescents who participated in the study qualified as being overweight, the study found, intriguingly, that overweight adolescents were significantly less likely to be receptive to food advertisements.

In 2009, the most recent year for which data is available, teenagers saw nearly five fast-food ads a day on TV, according to Arbitron and Nielsen statistics, a jump of 39 percent in six years.

The Dartmouth research adds to a growing body of literature that suggests it is lower-risk youth, not already high-risk adolescents, who may be the most vulnerable to the barrage of fast-food TV ads. As a comparison, several studies, including one led by Dr. Adachi-Mejia published in 2009,* have shown that adolescents at low risk for smoking are the most vulnerable to the influence of tobacco exposure in films. Similarly, non-overweight adolescents may be the most vulnerable to food advertising on TV.

The trend these studies describe worries Adachi-Mejia, who is a member of the Cancer Control Research Program at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Norris Cotton Cancer Center. "Lots of different cancers are tied to the risks established by unhealthy eating," she commented. "What our study points to is the question of encouraging healthy, non-risky behavior in adolescents. What can we do and what policies can we create that make healthy eating the default option for this population? We want to know what those behaviors are that can be modified to lower the risk of cancer. And one thing we've learned is that the media plays a key role in cancer-risk behavior."

About Dartmouth-Hitchcock Norris Cotton Cancer Center
Norris Cotton Cancer Center combines advanced cancer research at Dartmouth College and Dartmouth Medical School with patient-centered cancer care provided at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, at Dartmouth-Hitchcock regional locations in Manchester and Keene, NH, and St. Johnsbury, VT, and at 11 partner hospitals throughout New Hampshire and Vermont. It is one of 40 centers nationwide to earn the National Cancer Institute's "Comprehensive Cancer Center" designation. Learn more about Norris Cotton Cancer Center research, programs, and clinical trials online at

* Adachi-Mejia AM, Primack BA, Beach ML, et al. Influence of movie smoking exposure and team sports participation on established smoking. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2009;163:638-643.

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