How To Turn The Tables On Fast Food Advertising

June 8, 2015

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The entertainer Will Rogers famously once said, “Advertising is the art of convincing people to spend money they don’t have for something they don’t need.” It’s a very cynical view on the value of advertising to be sure. But when it comes to the advertising of food, it evokes some thought-provoking questions.

The fact is that if you are reading this article right now, it most likely means you are human. And as long as you are a living, breathing human, you need food to survive. In our modern society, that’s where many humans can run into trouble. With so much food variety, how do we choose what to eat to survive?

If it’s up to the fast food industry, you’ll choose whatever shows up on your TV or computer, in your magazines, and on billboards lining the highways. With close-up vanity shots of gooey cheese or chocolate, scantily-clad models taking a big bite out of a monster burger, and catchy jingles that find a semi-permanent home in your brain, food advertising does its best to convince you that you need THIS food. The food industry spends billions of dollars each year on advertising creating images and experiences that form lasting positive messages. This has only been compounded by the popular practice of posting images of meals on social media sites. Food imagery is everywhere, and this has the potential to negatively impact your eating behaviors.

Research has shown that many people are vulnerable to this kind of brand allurement, especially if they are overweight or obese. In a recent study by Dartmouth University, researchers used scanners to map the brains of participants as they watched various fast food commercials. The volunteers were unaware of the nature of the study, and viewed these ads along with non-food related commercials during a TV program. As the food ads played, the scanners recorded the same type of brain activity of people with real food before them. The fast food ads lit up parts of the brain associated with attention and evaluation, craving, pleasure, gratification, as well as the mouth, tongue and lips. Overweight participants recorded even stronger reactions in the two regions that process taste and flavor.

So, if our brains can’t tell the difference between real food and what we see in food advertising, and food advertising is all around us, does this mean we should surrender to the great almighty McDonalds-Burger King-KFC-Taco Bell-Dominos rulers already? Fear not, there is hope for us yet. Science also tells us that we mere humans have the power to fight off the temptations of food imagery besieging us on a regular basis. This power comes from something called ‘the executive function” in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain.

Executive function is the ability of the brain to process competing interests.  Another way to think about it is as the gatekeeper for impulse or temptation control. It will say, “I know you want this, but you really don’t need this.” For instance, if you see a slice of pizza coming right out of the oven, the brain lights up as described in the Dartmouth study. It’s a natural human reaction. However, if your executive function is working properly, it will overrule your impulse to scarf it down.

A strong executive function is actually a marker of people who have successfully reached their weight loss goals and maintained that weight loss in the long-term. In a Brigham Young University study, when researchers showed participants images of high-calorie foods after a period of fasting, the group that had lost weight and kept it off for at least 12 months (as opposed to a group of overweight participants and those who had always had a healthy weight) displayed the highest levels of activity in the executive function area of the brain. This means they relied on the brain’s executive processes more than the other groups, which may explain why they succeeded at losing weight and maintaining weight loss.

Sorry, Will Rogers, you were wrong! We can resist tempting food advertisements by strengthening the brain’s executive function to more objectively answer the question, “Do I need that?” To build the healthy, lean body we want, we must first work on our minds.

Comments (2)

[…] with their weight on being too critical of themselves. Studies have shown that there are many exterior factors that promote weight gain, particularly in America’s media-driven, instant gratification, fast food culture. There are also other underlying medical conditions and […]

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