Read the full article at Michigan Research.

Hamburgers, French fries, tacos and fried chicken.

Access to this popular fare is not of concern for most Americans, as Statista reports the United States is home to more than 230,000 fast-food restaurants.

But beyond its taste and convenience, research shows that consumption of fast food is linked to serious health problems like obesity and heart disease.

University of Michigan researchers are studying the industry, exploring how fast-food commercials influence our brain and whether companies target certain communities to increase profits.

Their work will help influence the future of fast food.

A bacon cheeseburger covers the screen, with golden French fries and a chocolate milkshake in the background.

She instantly craves a salty snack, so she heads to the kitchen to satisfy her appetite.

This scenario is nothing new, as the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity reported that adolescents in 2016 viewed about 12 food-related TV advertisements per day.

So what prompts this sort of reaction, and which crowds are most vulnerable to fast-food marketing?

Cue Ashley Gearhardt. The U-M psychology professor is working with nearly 200 teenagers to study how fast-food commercials affect their brain. The results of her study could influence the growing epidemic of childhood obesity, which affects about 20 percent of Americans ages 12 to 19, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“There’s been an increase in the amount of fast-food advertising to teenagers, and this is a serious problem because they often have an overdeveloped reward system,” said Gearhardt, director of the university’s Food and Addiction Science & Treatment (FAST) Lab. “This leaves them vulnerable to problematic behaviors like overeating.”

Gearhardt recruited teenagers, ranging from normal weight to obese, to U-M where they provided saliva samples for genetic testing, then watched TV while getting their brains scanned. Teenagers viewed commercials marketing everything from fast food to face wash.

Based on preliminary data, as well as findings from a previous study led by Gearhardt, regions of the brain linked to attention, reward and taste were active among all participants, especially when food commercials aired.

Through surveys and follow-up visits where researchers measured participants’ height, weight and body mass index, they found that teenagers who showed the greatest reward-related brain activity in response to fast-food commercials were more likely to gain weight over time.

Their findings could help influence public policy, as groups nationwide continue to push for tougher restrictions on which items fast-food companies can market based on nutritional value.

“Reducing the number of cues that encourage people to eat fast food is really important, and although TV remains the dominant medium, the fast-food industry has a growing presence on social media,” Gearhardt said. “Our current food environment is one in which the default is to overeat and to struggle with obesity, and it’s really going to take some systemic environmental changes to make an impact.”