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Fast Food TV Ad Familiarity Linked With Obesity In New Study

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It's no secret that kids these days are bombarded with smiling images of the clown suit-ed Ronald McDonald, bespectacled Colonel Sanders and other fast food icons, but could these advertising ploys directly contribute to childhood obesity?

Perhaps: A new study by the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that young people who recognize fast-food brands when certain cues are erased -- like McDonald's golden arches and KFC's logo -- are twice as likely to be obese as those who recognized only a few.

Participants in a national sample of 3,342 youths aged 15 to 23 were shown 20 still images culled from television ads for top fast food restaurants. Brands were digitally removed from the images, and individuals were asked if they remembered seeing the ad, if they liked it and if they could name the restaurant brand. They were also shown 20 ads for alcohol.

According to a release from the study, the results were alarming:

Results showed that about 18 percent of participants surveyed were overweight, and 15 percent were obese. The percentage of youths who were obese was significantly higher among those who recognized more ads than those who recognized few ads (17 percent vs. 8.3 percent). Even after controlling for the variables listed above, youths who recognized many ads were more than twice as likely to be obese compared with those who recognized few ads.

Interestingly, the same phenomenon was not found with alcohol ads, suggesting it's specific to fast food advertising content.

The study's co-author, James D. Sargent, MD, FAAP, noted that the relationship between fast food marketing and obesity "not simply that it prompts more quick-serve restaurant visits."

Instead, “individuals who are more familiar with these ads may have food consumption patterns that include many types of high-calorie food brands, or they may be especially sensitive to visual cues to eat while watching TV. More research is necessary to determine how fast-food ad familiarity is linked to obesity,” he added.

The researchers were quick to note, however, that more research is necessary to fully understand the relationship between fast food and obesity.

Photo from Flickr: Keoni Cabral

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