Everything You Know Is Wrong, Part 3

McDistance From a McDonalds

It seems to have been pretty well accepted, in childhood obesity circles, that proximity is destiny. Studies from several different parts of the globe have confirmed that when kids live and/or go to school near fast-food outlets, they tend to get fat.

Aside from the fact that researchers have proved it, the thing is a no-brainer. Will Junior travel half a block for cheese fries or a mile for broccoli? The smart money is on the cheese fries. The smart money belongs to the empire of pseudo-food, the hyperpalatable, hedonic foodlike substances that kids find so delightful. The smart money’s payroll includes an inexhaustible supply of technicians, photographers, and copywriters who make junk food so appealing in taste, appearance, and emotional satisfaction.

Consequently, people start thinking about making stricter rules about where fast-food establishments may transact business, with the usual uproar about everything from local zoning laws to the Constitution. Others suggest that, before getting into all that, we figure out whether the proximity of junk food is really a factor in childhood obesity.

A different set of researchers, this time from the University of Southern Maine, seem to have proven the opposite and a counter-intuitive notion. An article by David E. Harris, Ph.D., and several other authors, in the July/August 2011 issue of the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, explains their thinking.

According to the answers they have obtained, there is no meaningful connection between the closeness of schools and fast-food joints, and teenagers’ risk of obesity.

Stone Hearth News reports:

Surprisingly, this study found no correlation between students’ overweight risk and the presence of stores with unhealthful food choices near their schools… The researchers emphasize that ‘until unhealthful food choices are reduced overall, it is not surprising that the presence of food stores near their schools has little impact on students’ risk of being overweight.’

The article goes on to say:

This study documents the importance of identifying determinants that influence adolescents’ risk of being overweight.

That is the most interesting part, because the response that springs automatically to mind is, “Yes, let’s identify those determinants. It all makes sense when viewed through the psychological food dependence-addiction lens.”

As Dr. Pretlow says,

The claim that other factors are responsible for obesity is hard to counter, as multiple factors lead to addiction. Other factors claimed to cause childhood obesity are things such as sedentary lifestyle, video games, lack of PE in schools, and parents lack of time to cook healthy. But none of these seems to account for why obese kids struggle so desperately to lose weight. I’m VERY willing to consider other explanations for the childhood (and adult) obesity epidemic. But, so far, none plausibly account for the problem, and there likewise are no plausible refutations of the addiction/displacement activity etiology.

Another childhood obesity factor is the bad influence exerted on children by the advertising that saturates every corner of their lives. To give just one example, their fondness for imaginary cartoon characters is exploited to the max. World consciousness has been raised about this problem. Everybody knows it’s bad.

Or is it?

Maya Cueva found her niche as a newsroom intern for Youth Radio, while still attending Berkeley High School, from which she has just graduated. Cueva is working toward the credentials to eventually teach high-school students media literacy — how to analyze what they see and hear from advertisers and news sources.

Exploring the question of whether fast-food ads are responsible for the high rate of childhood obesity, Cueva visited with Dr. A. K. Pradeep, CEO of a company called NeuroFocus. The company consults with the food industry about how to get better results from their ads.

Rather than the traditional focus groups, Pradeep advocates the electroencephalogram. The wizard of neuromarketing peeks into the brain “where the truth really is.” If you only watch one video clip this year, “My Brain on Ads,” the documentation of Cueva’s encounter with Predeep’s lab, might be the one. In a cheerful, everyday way, it’s quite creepy.

Neuro imaging is fraught with potential for uses both positive and negative. Cueva says,

Kind of like how a microphone is picking up the sound waves of my voice, the EEG strapped to my head is picking up brainwaves created by the electrical activity that passes between neurons when my brain processes something, anything — even commercials.

The equipment measures the effect of a commercial on the attention, emotions, and memory, and the information gathered by NeuroFocus and similar companies can be used to mess with kids’ minds.

But Cueva learned from an early age how to resist the manipulations of advertising, because she was given a baloney detector. When she was in second grade, her mother, a therapist, started an after-school class to help kids analyze ads and teach them to never surrender. Your brain’s reaction to the ad is not the important thing, Cueva says, because you still retain the decision-making capability.

She spoke with neuroscientist Ben Hayden, who confirmed this, using the example of a brand of shampoo that Cueva felt attracted to:

If he scanned my brain while I was in that shampoo aisle, Hayden says, he would see lots of activity in the ‘just do it’ region as I grab the Tresemme. But just as TV ads prime that part of the brain, it turns out the kind of training my mom gave me could boost the signal in the ‘just say no’ region. It’s what Mom was telling me all along.

In other words, the bad influence and the good influence cancel each other out. But, as Cueva realizes, because of her mother’s strong influence, she is more than usually conscious of media bias, and especially the influence that advertising wields.

Cueva is not a typical young person, and it shows. She concludes,

Hayden says I could be better off than most teens, because every time I think critically about how ads work, I create new patterns in my brain that strengthen the self-control regions. The ads might get inside my brain, but they don’t have to decide what I do.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “NO correlation between students’ overweight risk and unhealthy food outlets near school,” Stone Hearth News, 06/17/11
Source: “This Is Your Brain On Ads: An Internal ‘Battle’,” NPR, 06/14/11
Source: “Maya Cueva,” Youth Radio, 11/15/10
Image by dullhunk (Ntavkav), used under its Creative Commons license.

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OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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