10/18/2013 11:23 am ET Updated Dec 18, 2013

Do Star Athletes Eat the Junk They Endorse?

What do star athletes eat? I'd bet they view their bodies as a temple and treat it with great care.

Yet for the right price role models of health and fitness will recommend junk food.

A new study in Pediatrics shows the extent and reach of athlete-endorsed junk food. The study looked at the 2010 Bloomberg Newsweek 100, a list that ranks top athletes on the basis of prominence in their sport and the earning potential of their endorsement contracts. The researchers, led by Marie Bragg, then generated a list of the brands these athletes endorsed, and sorted the brands to 11 categories, including food and beverage, automotive, finance, airlines, etc.

Best endorsers for worst foods

Of the 512 brand endorsements, 122 were for food and beverage, and these made up
about 24 percent of all the deals. LeBron James (Sprite, Vitaminwater, McDonald's, Powerade), Peyton Manning (Gatorade, Wheaties, Pepsi) and Serena Williams (Oreo, Gatorade, Nabisco) had more food and beverage endorsements than any other athlete.

Sports drinks toped the list of food and drink deals, followed by soft drinks and by
fast food. And here's the nutritional profile of athlete endorsed food: About 80 percent of the foods were energy-dense and nutrient-poor, and 93 percent of the beverages were sugar water, receiving 100 percent of their calories from added sugar.

What do athletes eat?

LeBron James might not need to care about calorie counts -- he probably burns three times the energy most men his age do -- but his food doesn't come from a factory; it is carefully prepared by his personal chef, Brandon.

When asked about her diet, Serena told Body & Soul:

My goal is to have a healthy lifestyle so I can live a long life. I don't eat a lot of meat. I eat a lot of natural food -- a lot of green stuff like spinach and cucumber. And I drink lots of water.

Marketing junk leads to eating lots of junk. Junk endorsed by sport idols -- the very picture of health and fitness -- removes barriers of judgment, and leads to eating even more junk. And the most talented marketers and endorsers are promoting the worst foods.

Yet in the real world, eating fast food and drinking sugary drinks leads to obesity and disease, not to winning Super Bowls and Grand Slams.

An athlete isn't just a celebrity. His endorsement carries with it a healthy halo, associating the food and drink he's supporting with fitness and vigor, and creating a confusing mixed message. Although junk food and cigarettes are not the same, the Pediatrics article reminds us that Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio and Lou Gehrig appeared in tobacco ads, and it was only public pressure that did away such practices. Until such pressure is applied to junk food, we'll continue to see the world's premiere sports competitions like the Olympics brought to us by McDonald"s and Coca-Cola, and the athletes our kids admire suggesting to them that junk food makes you strong.

Dr. Ayala

For more by Ayala Laufer-Cahana, M.D., click here.

For more health news, click here.

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