Kids who are familiar with logos and other images from fast food, less-than-healthy snacks, and soda brands are more likely to be overweight or obese.
Researchers tested kids on their knowledge of various brands—including their ability to identify items such as golden arches, silly rabbits, and a king’s crown—and found that those who could identify them the most tended to have higher body mass indexes, or BMIs.
“We found the relationship between brand knowledge and BMI to be quite robust,” says Anna McAlister, assistant professor of advertising and public relations at Michigan State University. “The kids who know most about these brands have higher BMIs.”
The researchers tested the children, ages three to five, by giving them pictures of unhealthy food-related logos. They then gave the children pictures of food items, packaging, and cartoon characters and asked to match the items with their corresponding brand logos.
“The results varied, which is a good thing,” McAlister says. “Some kids knew very little about the brands while others knew them exceptionally well.”
What about exercise?
Doing the study twice, the research team found that among one group exercise tended to offset the negative effects of too much familiarity with unhealthy food. However, that finding could not be duplicated in the second group.
“The inconsistency across studies tells us that physical activity should not be seen as a cure-all in fixing childhood obesity,” McAlister says. “Of course we want kids to be active, but the results from these studies suggest that physical activity is not the only answer. The consistent relationship between brand knowledge and BMI suggests that limiting advertising exposure might be a step in the right direction too.”
Because kids get most of their food messages from television, the question is which causes more harm—the sedentary lifestyle brought on by too much time in front of the TV or the unhealthy food messages that bombard kid as they watch?
“From our results,” she says, “it would suggest that it’s not the TV time itself, but rather what is learned about these brands. It’s probably the developing food knowledge, not the sedentary lifestyle.”
University of Oregon professor and co-author of the paper, Bettina Cornwell, notes that the findings provide more insight into children’s relationship with food, or their “first language of food.” It doesn’t take long, she says, for children to figure out what they like and don’t like, something that can stick with them their entire lives.
“What we’re trying to show here is just how young kids are when they develop their theory of food,” McAlister says. “As early as three years of age, kids are developing a sense of what food means to them.”
The findings appear in the journal Appetite.
<Children's knowledge of packaged and fast food brands and their BMI. Why the relationship matters for policy makers >, Published on Journal <Appetite> in June 2014