Irony? Athletes Mainly Endorse Unhealthy Foods, Yale Researchers Find

It may look natural: a sports superstar like Lebron James endorsing a Gatorade-type "sports drink."

But if you're an obesity researcher, what you see is an authority figure pushing yet more high-calorie drinks on kids who are already swimming in added sugars. Or in other ads, pushing fast food to an overweight nation. You see irony: a model of fitness helping others get fatter.

Researchers from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale point out that irony in the November issue of the journal Pediatrics, in a study that found that most of the foods and drinks endorsed by athletes are unhealthy, and that teenagers were most exposed to those ads. From the press release:

Researchers selected 100 professional athletes to study based on Businessweek’s 2010 Power 100 report, which ranked athletes according to their endorsement value and prominence in their sport. Information about each athlete’s endorsements was gathered from the Power 100 list and AdScope. Researchers then sorted the endorsements into categories: food/beverages, automotive, consumer goods, service providers, entertainment, finance, communications/office, sporting goods/apparel, retail, airline, and other. The nutritional quality of the foods featured in athlete-endorsement advertising was assessed, along with the marketing data.

Of the 512 brands associated with these athletes, food and beverage brands were the second largest category of endorsements behind sporting goods. “We found that LeBron James (NBA), Peyton Manning (NFL), and Serena Williams (tennis) had more food and beverage endorsements than any of the other athletes examined. Most of the athletes who endorsed food and beverages were from the NBA, followed by the NFL, and MLB,” said Marie Bragg, the study’s lead author and a doctoral candidate at Yale.

Sports beverages were the largest individual category of athlete endorsements, followed by soft drinks, and fast food. Most — 93% — of the 46 beverages being endorsed by athletes received all of their calories from added sugars.

...“The promotion of energy-dense, nutrient-poor products by some of the world’s most physically fit and well-known athletes is an ironic combination that sends mixed messages about diet and health,” said Bragg.

Bragg and co-authors assert that professional athletes should be aware of the health value of the products they are endorsing, and should use their status and celebrity to promote healthy messages to youth.

Readers, do you agree? Or do you think athletes have no special responsibility to promote health?

This program aired on October 7, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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Carey Goldberg Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth section.



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