A possible link between outdoor food ads and a tendency to pack on pounds is being identified by a new research from UCLA.
Dr. Lenard Lesser and his colleagues suggest that the more outdoor advertisements promoting fast food and soft drinks there are in a given census tract, the higher the likelihood that the area's residents are overweight.
"Obesity is a significant health problem, so we need to know the factors that contribute to the overeating of processed food," said Lesser, who conducted the research while a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Clinical Scholar at the UCLA Department of Family Medicine and UCLA's Fielding School of Public Health.
"Previous research has found that fast food ads are more prevalent in low-income, minority areas, and laboratory studies have shown that marketing gets people to eat more. This is one of the first studies to suggest an association between outdoor advertising and obesity," said Lesser, now a research physician at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation Research Institute in California.
For the study, the researchers looked at two densely populated areas in Los Angeles and New Orleans, each with more than 2,000 people per square mile. They focused on more than 200 randomly selected census tracts from those two areas, which included a mixture of high- and low-income residents.
The researchers found a correlation: The higher the percentage of outdoor ads for food, the higher the odds of obesity in those areas.
"For instance, in a typical census tract with about 5,000 people, if 30 percent of the outdoor ads were devoted to food, we would expect to find an additional 100 to 150 people who are obese, compared with a census tract without any food ads," Lesser said.
Because the study was cross-sectional, the researchers do not claim that the ads caused the obesity.
But this study suggests enough of a link between outdoor food advertising and "a modest, but clinically meaningful, increased likelihood of obesity" to warrant further examination, the researchers concluded.
The study appeared online in the peer-reviewed journal BMC Public Health.