Little girl watching TV on the couch stretchedPretty much every parent can relate to their kid requesting French fries, milkshakes, and fried chicken nuggets from fast food restaurants at some time or another in their young lives. The question is, do we blame the kids themselves for what they think they’re craving, or are there other factors at play?

A recent study published in the Journal of Pediatrics suggests that those pesky food advertisements, which tout fun-loving characters alongside sugary, artificial foods, may be the true culprit in this scenario. Researcher Amanda S. Bruce, Ph.D., and her team from the University of Kansas Medical Center used MRI technology to focus on the brain region most active during reward valuation, the prefrontal cortex (which is also linked to desires to eat fatty, sugary foods). During the brain scan, children were asked whether they wanted to eat the food items that were shown immediately after the commercials. While Dr. Bruce and her team discovered what every parent already knows– the children’s decisions were driven by tastiness rather than healthfulness of the food. But they found that tastiness was even more important to the children after watching food commercials and the children made decisions about the foods they wanted much faster (think impulsively) after watching food commercials.

The MRI scans showed that the food advertisements made the prefrontal cortex area of children’s brains more active, which meant the child valued the commercial, and as a result, the food shown in the ad.

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The scary part? Children in the U.S. view between 1,000 and 2,000 food ads per year. “Food marketing may systematically alter the psychological and neurobiological mechanisms of children’s food decisions,” said Dr. Bruce in the study conclusions. One of the problems with this is that “children show increased activity in the reward-and-value region of the brain but do not yet have their self-control region fully developed,” said Dr. Bruce in an article on

In that interview with, Dr. Bruce also said that food habits formed childhood often follow them into adulthood, making the ability to eat healthy throughout life even more of a challenge for many Americans. With that thought in mind, it highlights the question of how ethical marketing unhealthy foods to children is, and what the long-term effects will be once the children grow into adulthood. Because of this, some countries around the world have banned unhealthy food ads from appearing during TV shows for kids.

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Tips for Limiting Your Child’s Junk Food Intake

If you’re kids are pestering you for sugary cereals or chocolate-chip cookies every time you run to the grocery store, you may want to nip these cravings before they sink in.

Be a role model.

It can sometimes be easier said than done, but if your kids see you munching on potato chips when you come home from work, they’ll want some, too. Instead, opt for healthier snack options, such as edamame, fresh fruit, or mixed nuts.

Make mealtime a priority.

Instead of searching for the nearest takeout menu the next time you have a busy day, plan your meals ahead of time so you’re not making unhealthy choices at the last minute. Also, eating healthy, balanced meals will help you and your children ward off junk food cravings.

Turn off the TV!

Based off the findings from Dr. Bruce’s study, it’s important to limit your child’s time spent gazing at the TV (or any electronic device for that matter). Limit their TV time to an hour or two per day, and encourage them to get outdoors and be active.

– By Sara Kildunne

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