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Athlete Endorsements Could Be Swaying Children's Food Choices

Having trouble trying to dissuade your child from binging on an unhealthy snack? His or her favorite athlete could be partially to blame.

Out of all professional athletes who endorsed either food or beverage products in 2010, LeBron James, Peyton Manning, and Serena Williams touted the highest number of endorsements, according to a study published online today in the journal Pediatrics. However, James, Manning, and Williams were also the largest contributors to the marketing of unhealthy foods, according to the study. (And that's before Manning became an owner of 21 Papa John's stores in Colorado!)

The study authors examined 100 professional athletes based on their placement in Bloomberg BusinessWeek's 2010 Power 100 rankings, which ranks athletes according to their endorsement value and prominence in their sport. Of the 512 brands endorsed by those 100 athletes in 2010, food/beverages were the second-most popular category (23.8 percent), behind only sporting goods/apparel (28.3 percent).

In this sample, professional athletes were associated with 44 different food or beverage brands, ranging from McDonald's and Burger King to Coca-Cola, Gatorade, and Red Bull, with a total of 122 food/beverage product endorsements. James, Manning, and Williams led all athletes with four food/beverage endorsement contracts each.

Sports beverages, soft drinks, and fast food were the three most popular types of food/beverage endorsements for athletes. Of the 62 food products appearing in athlete endorsements throughout 2010, 79 percent of them were energy dense and nutrient poor, according to the study. In terms of beverages, 93.4 percent of the 46 different products endorsed by athletes received 100 percent of their calories from added sugars.

Well and Good

Based on their rank in the Bloomberg BusinessWeek Power 100, the number of food/beverage products they endorsed, and the nutritional quality of those products, James, Manning, and Williams were found to be the three worst offenders in terms of unhealthy endorsements.

"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," the study authors note.

Of particular concern to parents: Youths between the ages of 12 and 17 saw the most food commercials with athlete endorsements during 2010 (an average of 35.1 commercials per year), followed by adults and younger children. That leads the study authors to suggest that professional athletes have a responsibility to exercise greater caution before accepting certain endorsements. 

"Professional athletes have an important opportunity to promote the public's health, particularly for youth, by refusing endorsement contracts that involve promotion of energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods," the study authors write.

Ryan Howard of the Philadelphia Phillies was the athlete with the healthiest food/beverage endorsements, per the study.

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