Junk Food Ads and Child Obesity: The Link Parents Must Know

The immediate and insidious impact junk food ads can have on kids

If your kids regularly plop down on the sofa to watch kids' shows on TV, you may want to think about ways of minimizing their exposure to commercials. We all know that ads can be pretty hard to resist, whether the product being marketed is clothing, a tech gadget, or food. Even grownups may see or hear an ad and think, "Ooh, I'd really like to have that!"​ So imagine how tough it must be for children to see one and have the willpower to resist the temptation of a new toy or yummy-looking snack. And while we know how strong the pull of ads can be, parents may not realize just how incredibly powerful and effective these messages really are.

Boy eating junk food watching tv
Burger / Phanie / Getty Images

The Impact of Ads on Kids

Ads for junk food can increase the amount of unhealthy food choices kids make within as little as 30 minutes after exposure to the advertisements, says research published in the July 2016 issue of the journal Obesity Reviews.

Researchers at McMaster University, in Canada, assessed 17 studies that examined the effects of unhealthy food and drinks marketing and found that the ads increased the amount of calories kids ate and their preference for unhealthy food shortly after they viewed the commercials. "Our meta-analysis showed that in children exposed to unhealthy dietary marketing, dietary intake significantly increased during or shortly after exposure to advertisements," says Behnam Sadeghirad, lead author of the study and a Ph.D. student in clinical epidemiology and biostatistics at McMaster University.

And it isn't just TV commercials—marketing can include product packaging with superheroes and characters popular with kids as well as video games and internet and magazine and other advertisements. The study also found that younger children may be particularly vulnerable to the messages in these ads.

Given the fact that obesity rates among children have been increasing worldwide, it's imperative that we examine factors, such as marketing of junk foods to kids, that may be contributing to the problem. 

How Parents Can Reduce the Impact of Junk Food Ads

There's no doubt that the forces of marketing all those unhealthy drinks and chips and other junk food are enormous and all around us. But there are ways parents can minimize the effect these ads have on their kids. Here are some strategies to consider:

  • Reduce screen time. One of the most effective ways to reduce your child's exposure to TV commercials is to reduce the amount of time he spends in front of the TV. And cutting down screen time is linked with a number of additional benefits, including better health and even improved grades.
  • Eat healthy dinners together. As with cutting back screen time, eating healthy foods together has benefits beyond the immediate one of reducing exposure to junk food ads. Not only will kids learn to make healthier food choices, but you'll spend more time communicating and strengthening your relationship with your kids. In fact, studies have shown that regular family dinners can improve kids' nutrition and health; strengthen their mental, social, and emotional skills; and even help them do better in school.
  • Talk about the messages in the ads, and what they're trying to do. Knowledge is power, and even young school-age kids can begin to develop the skills to think about what an ad is trying to sell and what may be a lie or exaggeration. If you begin to teach them how to be educated consumers at a young age, they're more likely to have the ability to analyze ads and not be as easily swayed as they get older.
  • Look at the other factors that may make kids unhealthy. If your kids are spending too much time on sedentary activities, try to get more exercise into their day. Go outside and play with your kids.
4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Sadeghirad B, Duhaney T, Motaghipisheh S, Campbell NR, Johnston BC. Influence of unhealthy food and beverage marketing on children's dietary intake and preference: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized trials. Obes Rev. 2016;17(10):945-59. doi:10.1111/obr.12445

  2. Stiglic N, Viner RM. Effects of screentime on the health and well-being of children and adolescents: a doi: systematic review of reviews. BMJ Open. 2019;9(1):e023191. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2018-023191

  3. Adelantado-Renau M, Moliner-Urdiales D, Cavero-Redondo I, Beltran-Valls MR, Martínez-Vizcaíno V, Álvarez-Bueno C. Association between screen media use and academic performance among children and adolescents: a systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA Pediatr. 2019;173(11):1058-1067. doi: 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2019.3176

  4. Harrison ME, Norris ML, Obeid N, Fu M, Weinstangel H, Sampson M. Systematic review of the effects of family meal frequency on psychosocial outcomes in youth. Can Fam Physician. 2015;61(2):e96-106. PMID: 25676655

By Katherine Lee
Katherine Lee is a parenting writer and a former editor at Parenting and Working Mother magazines.