MONDAY, Oct. 7 (HealthDay News) -- Professional athletes may be
known for their fitness, but the foods they endorse are usually
less than healthy, a new study finds.
The study found that food and beverages promoted by the likes of
Peyton Manning and Serena Williams are most often high in calories
and devoid of nutrients. Of 62 food products athletes endorsed in
2010, 79 percent fell into the junk food category. And nearly all
athlete-promoted beverages got 100 percent of their calories from
Experts said the findings, reported online Oct. 7 and in the
November print issue of
Pediatrics, are not startling.
But they are concerning, in part because athletes are paragons
of fitness, said Dr. Michael Rich, a pediatrician and director of
the Center on Media and Child Health, in Boston.
"There's an implicit message that the athletes actually use these products, and that (the products) are healthy," said Rich, who did not work on the study.
Linking an athlete to a food or drink "could lend it a health
halo," agreed Marie Bragg, the lead researcher on the study and a
Ph.D. candidate at Yale University in New Haven, Conn.
The finding that athletes endorse nutritionally suspect foods is
no surprise, according to Bragg. "I think everyone has the sense
that this is what's happening, just based on what we see," she
But, she added, this study actually examined the nutritional
content of athlete-endorsed foods, and looked at the marketing
reach of those ads.
"You see them everywhere -- TV, newspapers, magazines, the Internet," Bragg said. And based on Nielsen data, her team found, teenagers see those TV ads more often than adults do.
That's troubling, Bragg said, because teenagers often idolize
And, Rich added, "kids are much more likely to see TV ads than
to read nutrition labels on products."
For the study, Bragg's team looked at data on athlete
endorsements during 2010. Of 512 brands hawked by 100 athletes, 24
percent were for food and beverages -- including McDonald's, Burger
King, Oreos, Pepsi, Mountain Dew and Red Bull.
LeBron James of the Miami Heat (National Basketball
Association), Peyton Manning of the Denver Broncos (National
Football League) and tennis star Serena Williams were the "highest
contributors to the marketing of unhealthy foods," Bragg's team
Perhaps not surprisingly, athletes most commonly promoted sports
drinks like Gatorade and Powerade. But the researchers considered
any drink that gets 100 percent of its calories from sugar as
unhealthy -- and sports beverages fall into that category.
"Sports drinks are basically soda," Rich said. But consumers, particularly kids, may view them as health foods, he noted.
The American Beverage Association, which represents the
industry, said its members have been careful to avoid targeting
"This study, in fact, reaffirms that children younger than 12 are not the age group primarily viewing food- and beverage-related advertisements that include professional athletes," the group said in a statement. "Our industry offers consumers a variety of choices to help make informed decisions and we respect parents' roles as the primary decision makers in choosing what their children consume."
Rich agreed, saying parents need to be savvy consumers and teach
their kids to do the same. He suggested that when an athlete
endorsement pops up on your TV screen, talk to your kids about it.
"Let them know, just because Peyton Manning is sitting by a jug of
Gatorade, that doesn't mean Gatorade made him what he is today,"
Bragg agreed, but "just being aware isn't enough," she
"Ideally, athletes would stop promoting unhealthy foods," Bragg said. And if parents are really concerned, she noted, they could "find ways to be vocal about it" -- such as supporting nutrition advocacy groups.
What this study cannot say is whether kids, or adults, actually
eat more junk food because of athletes' endorsements. Both Rich and
Bragg pointed to the millions of dollars that companies are willing
to pay athletes: NBA star Kobe Bryant earned an estimated $12
million per year from his contract with McDonald's, Bragg's team
"If companies are investing that much," Bragg said, "I think it's safe to assume there's a reason."
The American Psychological Association has more on
food ads and child health.
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