Kids Are Eating Junk Food Because Sports Stars Tell Them To

One of the most puzzling anomalies of the US advertising industry is the partnership between famous athletes and makers of unhealthy products. Plenty of commercials feature athletes promoting unhealthy food or drinks, giving the impression that poor nutrition can turn you into a sports hero.

A new study has revealed just how deep this partnership goes.

Crunching Data From 2015

According to the journal Pediatrics, researchers found that 76% of food items and 52.4% of beverages shown in advertisements for a sports organization are considered unhealthy. In order to be used in the research, an advertisement had to mention a specific sports organization (NBA, NHL, etc) and a specific brand (Coke, McDonald’s, etc). Most of the advertisements used in the study were TV commercials, YouTube advertisements or banner advertisements.

The researchers were particularly curious about a potential link between advertisements for sports organizations and childhood obesity. So, they only concentrated on the ten sports organizations with the most viewers ages two to seventeen.

Which Sports Organizations Are To Blame?

As you would probably expect, the NFL had the most viewers within this age range as well as the most food and beverage sponsors. What caught the researchers off-guard, however, was the sports organization with the third highest number of food and beverage sponsors: The National Little League.

"That was striking to me," said Marie Bragg, first author of the study and assistant professor in the Department of Population Health at the NYU School of Medicine in New York. "There could be the argument that it doesn't necessarily matter as much for childhood obesity if there are unhealthy products promoted where most of the viewers and sports organization players are adults, as opposed to Little League, where it's a lot of really young players and really young viewers.”

Researchers admitted that the target audience of most advertisements for sports organizations is adults. But medical professionals are worried that unlike adults, young children may be unable to understand that their favorite basketball player doesn’t actually drink Sprite or eat a Snickers before a game.

Eating Junk Food Doesn’t Seem So Bad

Dr. David Ludwig, a professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and co-director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center at Boston Children's Hospital, told CNN that these advertisements may be overshadowing good advice about healthy eating.

"Public health experts and pediatricians, when a child comes in for a visit, may warn against the risks of excessive weight, but for every positive message like that, 10 negative messages undermine the benefits,” Dr. Ludwig said. "Food advertisers and athletic organizations have long had an unhealthy relationship, implying that if you're physically active, you can eat anything you want. The evidence is that very few children are realistically ever going to reach such high activity levels that they can outrun a bad diet."

More data is needed to confirm the true influence of sports-related advertisements in the obesity epidemic. Still, it’s not exactly farfetched to assume that people might be more inclined to eat healthy if they had visual evidence of their sports heroes doing the same.

Two years ago, Bragg spearheaded a very similar study involving over 160 popular music stars. Her team found that out of all the food items the celebrities publicly endorsed, 80.8% are considered unhealthy.

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