Pitt Study Shows Restaurant Advertisements Linked to Weight Gain

By: Sarah Katz

A study from researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health found that in communities with an increase in restaurant advertisements, the average body mass index (BMI) of the population also increased.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as of 2018 about 42% of Americans are considered obese.

“There are many different causes for obesity and weight gain,” said Dr. Marian Jarlenski, associate professor at Pitt Public Health and one of the study authors. “There have been prior studies that show the fast food industry targets its advertising to low income areas or non-white areas. We wanted to take the next step to find out if there’s a differential effect.”

In the study, which was published in JAMA Network Open, researchers looked at the medical records of patients with various socio-economic statuses from 44 states and compared them to how much money fast food and casual dining chains spent on marketing per capita in the county where each of the patients lived. Not only did fast food chains spend more money advertising in low-income areas, but as the amount spent on advertising in these communities increased, so did the average BMI of those communities’ population.

Being overweight can have serious effects on health, including asthma, hypertension and joint pain.

In addition, as low socio-economic communities already suffer from long-standing health disparities, the increase in advertisements may exacerbate the problem by influencing peoples’ behavior to make unhealthy food choices.

While the research team was not able to view the content of the ads to determine whether the restaurants were adverting unhealthy food, Jarlenski said the amount of advertising dollars spent may still meaningfully affect eating behaviors.

“If the restaurant is advertising food that’s healthy, it might draw you in with your best intentions to order the salad,” Jarlenski said. “When you get there, you might say, ‘It’s been a tough day, I deserve the hamburger with large fries.’ Seeing that restaurant’s name and going there is the point of the advertising.”

Jarlenski and her team believe the first step to addressing the effect of restaurant advertising on obesity is to recognize the role marketing plays in our behavior.

“We need to have a consensus around the power of marketing and advertising in the United States,” Jarlenski said. “Once we have consensus as a society, then we can begin to take steps.”

Jarlenski and her team suggest that much like alcohol and tobacco, warnings or limits on unhealthy food would alert the consumer of the health risks associated with what they are consuming with the aim of limiting their intake.

“People can consume alcohol in a safe and healthy way, but we still acknowledge that we have to have limits around it,” Jarlenski explained. “We should start to think about that in terms of restaurants.

While alcohol isn’t a direct comparison, it is a good starting point for envisioning what health warnings may look like. The hope is that by informing consumers about the health effects of fast food, they may curb their intake and live healthier lives.”