Professional athletes may inspire athleticism in young fans, but a new study in the journal Pediatrics suggests they could also be contributing to the promotion of junk food through their endorsements of calorie-laden foods and drinks.
The study, conducted by researchers at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, showed that food and drink brands are the second biggest endorsement category for professional athletes, second only to sporting goods. And when looking specifically at what kinds of foods and drinks these athletes were endorsing, researchers found that sports drinks made up the biggest category for endorsements, soft drinks made up the second biggest category, and fast food made up the third biggest category.
Some athletes seemed to be especially likely to throw their names behind the marketing of unhealthful foods and drinks: NBA player LeBron James, NFL quarterback Peyton Manning and tennis star Serena Williams had the most endorsements of any athletes included in the study. And NBA athletes were more likely to endorse junk food than athletes from any other sports league.
"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," study researcher Marie Bragg, a doctoral candidate at Yale, said in a statement.
The study, which is published in the journal Pediatrics, is based on analysis of 100 professional athletes who were ranked on the 2010 Power 100 report from Businessweek (the ranking is based on prominence and endorsement value). Then, researchers looked at what products these athletes endorsed and grouped them into categories, such as food and drink, sporting goods, airlines, etc. Five hundred and twelve brands were identified.
Of all the food and drink brands endorsed by the professional athletes, most of them -- 79 percent -- were considered "energy-dense and nutrient-poor," and nearly all of the endorsed beverages -- 93 percent -- got 100 percent of their calories from added sugars.
Researchers also did an analysis of 2010 data from Nielson and AdScope, finding that youths ages 12 to 17 watched the most TV commercials with pro athlete endorsements for food.
"Our ultimate hope would be that athletes reject the unhealthy endorsements or, at the very least, promote healthy foods," Bragg told NBC News. "These athletes have an opportunity to work with parents. Instead, they're promoting really unhealthy foods."