Here is a fun little exercise for you to try: count the number of chain restaurant advertisements you encounter in a week. Include the ones you see on social media, television, apps, websites, and newsletters. Also count the ones you see on the street, on buses passing by, or in the train you are taking. Chain restaurant advertisements are everywhere. In fact, restaurants spend billions of dollars on food and beverage marketing each year to influence consumer preferences. These ads are primarily for unhealthy products, such as burgers, fries, and sugary beverages. Do these ads contribute to the obesity epidemic in the US? In a recently published study, Dr. Sara Bleich, a public policy professor at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health, and her colleagues provide insight into this important issue. 

Dr. Bleich and colleagues analyzed de-identified data on the changes of Body Mass Index (BMI) for almost 6 million adults from 2013 to 2016 across the US. A high BMI is commonly used as an indicator to screen for being overweight or obese, which may lead to other health problems, including stroke and heart disease. The researchers also gathered data on the changes in per capita county-level restaurant advertising spending over time. By using a statistical method that accounts for other risk factors for increased BMI, they found no association between changes in BMI and restaurant advertising spending in the overall adult population. However, when they examined data from just the low-income counties, they found that the average BMI in the population increased with the amount restaurants spend on ads per capita. Thus, restaurant advertising does not appear to be associated with weight gain in high-income populations, but may have an impact on the low-income populations. 

This study contributes to the body of evidence that chain restaurants ads, which penetrate our everyday lives, are disproportionately affecting the health of individuals from low-income communities. It is also worth noting that the study was conducted based on insurance data. That is, it only captured individuals who were already engaged in the healthcare system, and the effect of ads on the health of those left out from the healthcare system may be even more concerning. This is a serious issue of health and health equity in the US, underscoring the need for policies to decrease the negative impact of advertisement on vulnerable populations.

Dr. Sara Bleich is a Professor of Public Health Policy at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health in the Department of Health Policy and Management.

Managing Correspondent: Yuli Lily Hsieh

Press Article: Chain Restaurant Ads Linked to Weight Gain in Adults. MedPageToday. 

Original Journal Article: Association of Chain Restaurant Advertising Spending With Obesity in US Adults. JAMA.

Image Credit: Freepik 

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