Are we ready to protect adolescents from deceptive diet gurus and food ads?

Photo by Cornelia Schmidt

Gianluca Tognon, food scientist and collaborator with the I Family cohort in Gothenburg writes…

Paleolithic, raw-food, vegan, no-carb, all protein, all fat, no fat, 5:2 and  hundreds of other diets which are claiming their way to a healthy body, have been  monopolizing the consumer’s attention since  Dr. Atkins sold the first copy of his inaugural book on low-carb diets.

Fad diets are generally delivered by diet gurus, often self-nominated experts in the nutrition field, who concentrate on a very effective strategy: focusing their message on weight and cardiovascular risk. With the increasing obesity epidemic, it is no surprise that the latest book advising how to lose pounds as fast as the speed of light, and prevent myocardial infarction at the same time, will sell like hot cakes. Both weight and heart disease are common problems among adults living in western countries, creating an environment open to the marketing of “super” diet books.

At the same time, a huge number of food ads (frequently targeting children and young people) have inundated our daily life. Although food commercials are specifically designed to induce the desire to consume the advertised product, they are not inherently different to gurus’ messages. Indeed, they also use manipulative tactics to influence consumers’ choices in ways many might even not realize.

Researchers and advocates for children’s health agree that advertising junk food to children is effective. Preschool children report that junk food in branded packaging tastes better than food in plain wrapping, even when it is the same food. Young children in particular not familiar with the concept of marketing tend to believe whatever they see. Not surprisingly then that, unlike adults, they cannot fully understand the purpose (and the associated risks) of advertising, and are therefore easily influenced by it. Consequently, children are particularly vulnerable to deception by common advertising techniques.

According to a US report, the average adolescent is exposed to approximately 6,000 television food ads every year[1], with most commercials promoting products high in calories, sugar, sodium and/or fat. At the same time, adolescents can also be a target of diet gurus, and less capable then adults (at least the most educated ones) to find the frequent flaws in their theories. Diet gurus promote their business through advertising campaigns on social networks to attract people to their websites, which often include deceiving messages focusing on weight and body image. These messages can encourage observing adolescents to improve their weight and body shape, potentially convincing them to buy gurus’ books, if not their dietary supplements. Moreover, parents who regularly buy some of these products make them more accessible to their sons and daughters. Therefore, I believe adolescents are vulnerable to the risks of both food advertising and diet gurus.

Diet gurus and food companies design their messages to evoke an emotional response. In general, the promotion of food brands and diet books is associated with basic human motivations (e.g. happiness, attractiveness, accomplishment), encouraging consumers to purchase the latest dietary product or book. These messages are partially based on science but manipulated in order to be consumer friendly and to stimulate sales. Therefore, they can be very convincing for young people, who are particularly sensitive to image and trends.

Other useful strategies used by food companies and diet gurus are based on animal-rights (e.g. vegetarianism), or environment protection (e.g. organic, GMO-free food), which are themes that can stimulate a reaction from idealist adolescents.

Every year, millions of dollars are poured into the diet and nutrition business, overpowering the sums available to health authorities in the promotion of healthy practices. Little is known about how the brain responds to these messages, which may be of particular importance for individuals at-risk of obesity. Notably, the Internet is quickly replacing television as a media source for the youngest generations, a factor which creates an even greater risk for adolescents, who are known to be eager users of the net and particularly of social networks, where food companies and diet gurus are increasing their presence.

Adolescents are therefore particularly at risk of receiving distorted nutrition messages. If we do not prepare them to think critically –  something people often do not do while watching television, reading a magazine, or surfing the web – then we run the risk of many adolescents accepting many messages offered to them by advertising, thus becoming more likely to adopt unhealthy dietary lifestyles.

[1] Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity (2011). Trends in television food advertising to young people: 2011 update.

Gianluca Tognon is an Italian food scientist who relocated to the University of Gothenburg in Sweden to research the effects of a Mediterranean-like diet on health and disease over the life course.

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