A Yale University study criticized superstar athletes LeBron James, Serena Williams and Peyton Manning for promoting poor eating habits through their lucrative fast-food and junk-food endorsement deals.
“[These three are] the highest contributors to the marketing of unhealthy foods," said lead author Marie Bragg (via NBC News Oct. 7). "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."
Bragg and a team from Yale's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity published their report in the October 2013 issue of the journal "Pediatrics." The study indicated that in 2010, 100 top athletes endorsed 512 food brands, most of which were junk food, including sugary sodas and sports drinks, burgers, cookies and cereal.
Peyton Manning, the quarterback for the Denver Broncos, reportedly earns $12 million a year to endorse a host of products, including Gatorade and Papa John’s, and even owns 21 Papa John's pizza franchises in the Denver area.
Serena Williams, who recently switched to a partially vegan diet after being inspired by her raw-vegan sister Venus, has endorsed McDonald's and Oreo cookies. And Miami Heat superstar LeBron James earns $42 million a year by endorsing McDonald’s and Coca-Cola.
While no one can blame professional athletes for cashing in on their superstar status, obesity researchers are furious because of the huge influence these stars have on their young fans. Studies confirm that when star athletes endorse certain products, sales spike considerably.
Researchers say they hope pro athletes would use their star power to promote healthy eating instead of junk food, given today's alarming rate of childhood obesity.
“Our ultimate hope would be that athletes reject the unhealthy endorsements or, at the very least, promote healthy foods. Instead, they’re promoting really unhealthy foods,” said Bragg, a psychology Ph.D. candidate at Yale.
“Professional athletes wouldn’t endorse tobacco today because it would be a liability for them. We’re hoping one day that the same would be true for unhealthy foods.”
This isn't the first time celebrity athletes have come under fire for promoting fast food. In May 2012, a public-health group urged the Federal Trade Commission to yank a Gatorade ad featuring basketball legend Michael Jordan, claiming the commercial encouraged kids to engage in unhealthy and dangerous behavior.
The Gatorade commercial in question implied that former NBA superstar Michael Jordan was able to overcome the flu and score 38 points during Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals while suffering a 103-degree fever because of Gatorade.
That same week, a group of physicians petitioned President Barack Obama to stop being photographed in public noshing junk food, saying these images promote obesity and cancer by sending the message that it's OK to eat hot dogs, cheese steaks and hamburgers. Obama, 52, has since curbed his public junk-food-eating photo ops and even quit smoking.
In October 2013, singer Katy Perry was slammed for promoting childhood obesity by endorsing soda giant Pepsi.