How Simple Awareness of Fast Food Brands Can Lead to Making Kids Fat

A recent study finds knowledge of unhealthy foods can predict a higher BMI.
A recent study has found that children who are more familiar with junk food brands are also more likely to be overweight. 
Through a series of tests, Michigan State University researchers Anna McAlister and Bettina Cornwell found children who scored higher on their “brand knowledge” of unhealthy brands also had a higher BMI. 
Although the findings may not be surprising, the implications for childhood obesity are important as overweight children have been shown to become overweight adults. What's more, once you have a preference for unhealthy foods, it's hard to change your behavior.
“It's just as difficult to get rid of your first language you learn as it is to get rid of your first food experience,” Cornwell told AlterNet. 
McAlister and Cornwell tested children by asking them to sort through laminated pictures like the McDonald's logo, fries, a vending machines, a fast food restaurant and then added in a non-related picture like a frog to the mix. Later they asked the children to create a collage and asked children for their input. For instance: “This one is the Coke picture, so you should put all the Coke ones here. This one is for any that don’t belong.” Collages were made for brands like McDonalds, Burger King, Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Jelly Belly, Fruity Pebbles, Doritos, Lucky Charms and others. 
“This is more than just do you recognize this logo from McDonald’s,” Cornwell said. “This is very different. This is really capturing knowledge of the brand.”
The study conducted two group tests of children ranging from three to five years old. The first group involved 69 children (34 boys and 35 girls). The second one involved 75 children (40 boys and 35 girls). Parents were also asked to record their children’s TV viewing and physical activity in both cases. 
In both tests, results found a child’s knowledge of unhealthy brands would be a good predictor of a higher or lower BMI. In the first study, however, children with higher physical activity made a big difference in the BMI scores. In the second study, physical activity did not make a significant impact on the BMI numbers so they concluded physical activity “may not be sufficient to reduce BMI in children.”
“The inconsistency across studies tells us that physical activity should not be seen as a cure-all in fixing childhood obesity,” McAlister said. “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.” 
Although McAlister and Cornwell’s study revealed a correlation between brand knowledge and BMI, that doesn’t mean children who know all about Doritos will automatically have a higher BMI; in other words, the test acknolwedged if a child had a higher "brand knowledge" test score, she would probably also would have a higher BMI. Some have criticized the sample size for being too small to make any definitive conclusions, while others say a child's BMI isn't an accurate measure of health. 
Still, the results stress how marketing to children can affect a child’s preference for food at such an early age. Educating children on healthy food needs to be included in their early education in order to establish healthy eating habits. What's more, companies like McDonald’s and Burger King have vowed to focus advertising on food only, but Bettina and Cornwell point out that self-regulation doesn’t really work. A 2013 report found McDonald's and Burger King had “free toy giveaways in 69% of their television advertising and focused on movie tie-ins 55% of the time.” 
Researchers Cornwell and McAlister published their findings in the June 2014 issue of Appetite in a paper titled, “Children’s Knowledge of Packaged and Fast Food Brands and their BMI: Why the relationship matters for policy makers.” 

Clarissa A. Leon is AlterNet's food editor. She formerly served as an investigative research assistant at The Daily Beast and The Nation Institute.