The Vast Majority Of Foods Endorsed By Professional Athletes Are Unhealthy

CREDIT: AJ Mast/AP Images

Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning (right) shooting a promotional spot with Papa John's CEO John Schnatter (middle)

The vast majority of food and beverage products endorsed by professional athletes like LeBron James and Peyton Manning are calorie-dense, nutrient-poor, or filled with additive sugar, according to a new study published in the medical journal Pediatrics. That has some pediatricians worrying that kids could be getting the wrong message from celebrities who are supposed to embody healthy living.

The study found that of the 62 food products and 46 beverage products endorsed by athletes in 2010, a staggering 79 percent of foods were packed with calories and poor in essential, healthy nutrients. An even higher percentage of athlete-endorsed beverages — about 93 percent — had all of their calories come from additive sugar.

Some of professional sports’ most famous faces, including LeBron James and Peyton Manning, represented some of the most unhealthy products. For instance, James holds multi-million dollar contracts with McDonald’s and Bubblicious gum. Manning is an even worse offender, sponsoring sugary drinks like Gatorade, fatty snacks like Oreo, and the pizza chain Papa John’s.

“Professional athletes wouldn’t endorse tobacco today because it would be a liability for them,” said lead study author Marie Bragg of Yale University in an interview with the Globe and Mail. “We’re hoping one day that the same would be true for unhealthy foods.”

“The striking irony here is that you have some of the world’s most physically fit athletes promoting really unhealthy foods,” Bragg continued.

The trend could be giving young children who watch professional sports the wrong message when it comes to nutrition and physical health — especially considering the outsize influence that advertising junk food has on children.

In June, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a report finding that marketing junk food to kids has been “disastrously effective” at fueling the global obesity epidemic. A full 80 percent of U.S. teens are on their way to developing heart diseases as a consequence of diets that are too high in sugar, salt, and fat.

But the massive amount of money associated with fast and junk food sponsorship may stymie efforts to get athletes to endorse healthier products. The upcoming 2014 Olympic games in Sochi, Russia is almost certain to feature a bevy of fast food and beverage giants. McDonald’s and Coca Cola were rumored to have paid the International Olympic Committee (IOC) as much as $100 million for marketing and sponsorship rights during the 2012 London Olympics.