Life / Health

Commercials are selling teens on junk food — to the tune of 520 extra snacks a year

A new study from the UK showed young people who stream or watch a lot of TV with ads were likely to consume significantly more takeout meals and sugary drinks.

A new U.K. study finds 11 to 17-year-olds tend to eat significantly more junk food if they see it promoted on streaming services or TV.


A new U.K. study finds 11 to 17-year-olds tend to eat significantly more junk food if they see it promoted on streaming services or TV.

Have you ever been watching a commercial and suddenly felt the urge to stuff your face with pop tarts or potato chips?

Of course you have. Ads work on all of us, including kids — that's why companies spend so much money on them, said Dr. Tom Warshawski, UBC pediatrics professor and chair of the board of the Child Obesity Foundation.

It's only now that science is catching up, he said — and a new study of 3,348 British 11 to 19-year-olds from Cancer Research UK provides evidence.

It showed young people who stream or watch a lot of TV with ads — three hours per day or more — were nearly twice as likely to consume an unhealthy amount of takeout meals, sugary drinks and potato chips, as compared with those who watched half an hour per day or less.

Add that up and it equals about 520 additional servings of junk food per year, per teen. The results were similar between streaming TV and the traditional tube.

However, watching the BBC, which is ad-free, was not linked to junk food intake. That made the researchers reasonably confident that it was ads — not merely the act of sitting and snacking in front of the TV — that influenced kids' eating habits.

This research really matters, Warshawski said, because "Habits that are established in teenage years are very, very important, and carry through into young adulthood and the adult years."

There's a window of opportunity during adolescence when teens who are carrying extra weight can change their lifestyle, then shoot up in height, reaching a healthy body mass index, he explained. But once they're adults who've "settled" into their weight, shedding pounds becomes incredibly hard to do.

The study provides support, Warshawski believes, for legal restrictions on marketing sweets and treats to kids of all ages.

Tirtha Dhar, a marketing and consumer studies professor at University of Guelph who has studied the issue, said the new paper adds to the evidence of the impact of advertising on children’s preferences.  

But he cautioned against over-interpreting.

“There are reasons to believe there is overestimation of the effects of advertising on children’s consumption,” he said. “Parents are responsible for most purchases … so, some of the choice of unhealthy food can be attributed to parental decisions.”

“Low-income households with precarious jobs tend to rely more on TV to entertain children,” he added.   

David Ma, University of Guelph nutrition professor and president of the Canadian Nutrition Society, also emphasized that advertising is only one factor contributing to child obesity.

“We need to think holistically and also consider overall diet quality, physical activity, sedentary behaviour and sleep,” he said.   

Advertising junk food alongside children's programming has been illegal in the UK for a decade, but this study found that teens, unsurprisingly, mostly watch shows that are not covered by the ban.

In most of Canada, food companies are free to market whatever they want to children, although they're officially discouraged from doing so. Health Canada is in the process of developing restrictions on what it calls "unhealthy food and beverage marketing" to children as part of its Healthy Eating Strategy.

The results of a public consulation, published this past summer, showed many Canadians are on board with the idea of limiting junk-food ads directed at children, although there's a great deal of debate about which foods should be considered unhealthy by law.

Bill S-228, a proposal to amend the Food and Drugs Act to prohibit advertising unhealthy food to children under 13, is currently working its way through the legislative process. An earlier version of the bill set the age cut-off at 17, but it was amended because of concerns it would not stand up to a legal challenge on freedom-of-speech grounds.

MPs also raised concerns that new rules could affect sponsorship of kids' sports by, for example, Tim Hortons and McDonalds.

In Quebec, where all advertising to children has been banned for more than 30 years, rates of obesity and fast-food consumption among young people are signficantly below the national average, according to a 2012 UBC study. The province's regulations were upheld by the Supreme Court in 1989.

By the numbers:

23 per cent: The proportion of 12 to 17-year-olds who reported a height and weight that makes them overweight or obese, as of 2014. Source: Statistics Canada

More on