Does food advertising encourage overeating?

We are all exposed to messages and images of tasty foods on television, billboards, the Internet, magazines and newspapers. A large proportion of these messages promote unhealthy foods. So, does food advertising make us eat too much?

A new report, titled “Exposure to television food advertising primes food-related cognitions and triggers motivation to eat,” and published by Psychology & Health, looked at these questions.

The authors sought to answer the following questions:

  • Does constant exposure to food cues encourage over-indulgence?
  • Are overweight people more affected by food advertising?

The team examined people’s motivators to eating, and the practical implications for the management of dysfunctional eating behaviors.

Two experiments

The researchers – Eva Kemps, Marika Tiggemann and Sarah Hollitt – all at Flinders University in South Australia, carried out two experiments.

First experiment: a group of adult females with average BMIs (not fat – not thin) was split into two. One half was exposed to a mixture of food and non-food related advertising, while the other half watched just non-food related adverts.

Eva Kemps
Overweight or obese people appear to be more prone to over-indulging when exposed to food adverts, say Eva Kemps and colleagues.

They were then asked to finish off a list of unfinished words. All the words had the potential to be food related. They were also asked to comment on their desire to eat.

Second experiment: this was identical to the first, but all the adult females were obese or overweight.

In both groups, the participants who had been exposed to food advertising produced more food-related words. This suggests that food ads make us think more about food.

Overweight people more prone

The two experiments had another interesting finding:

  • In the second experiment, the (overweight) participants who had been exposed to food ads reported a stronger desire to eat compared to the (overweight) ones not exposed to food ads.
  • In the first experiment, the (normal weight) participants reported low desire to eat “across the board”, i.e. those exposed to food ads and those not exposed had the same (low) desire to eat.

Food ads appear to have a stronger effect on overweight women’s desire to eat compared to those of normal weight.

The authors believe further research is needed to determine whether it is possible to train over-eaters to avoid food when exposed to adverts.