Jul 07, 2014 8:00 AM

Author: Office of Public Affairs

Are your kids on a first-name basis with Tony the Tiger and Trix Rabbit? Do they point out the Golden Arches when you drive by? New research found a correlation between familiarity with junk-food logos and being overweight in kids as young as three.

“We found the relationship between brand knowledge and BMI [body mass index] to be quite robust,” says Anna McAlister, an assistant professor of advertising and public relations at Michigan State University who worked on the study.

The study looked at groups of kids between ages three and five, the age when they’re developing what the researchers called their “first language of food.” This means even before they’re old enough to read, in some cases, toddlers are associating these logos with unhealthy foods.

“People who produce images really know how to attract certain populations, and they know what kinds of images they respond to,” says Julie Metos, PhD, RD, an assistant professor and the interim chair of the Division of Nutrition at the University of Utah College of Health. “I think what it says about how early food choices are made or imprinted on our brain is very powerful. 

Metos says parents should expose their kids to a variety of healthy foods, limit junk-food purchases and trips to the drive-thru, and avoid conveying the idea that a fast-food meal or an extra-sugary cereal is a reward.

Another crucial step is limiting kids’ exposure to advertising, primarily by making sure they don’t spend a lot of time parked in front of the TV. Couch-surfing diminishes physical activity, but that’s not even the most important reason to turn off the tube. “It’s not the TV time itself, but rather what is learned about these brands,” McAlister says.

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