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Star Athletes Often Endorse Junk Food, Study Says

Sugar-packed 'sports drinks' among products hawked in lucrative ad campaigns

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LeBron James of the Miami Heat (National Basketball Association), Peyton Manning of the Denver Broncos (National Football League) and tennis star Serena Williams were the "highest contributors to the marketing of unhealthy foods," Bragg's team reported.

Perhaps not surprisingly, athletes most commonly promoted sports drinks like Gatorade and Powerade. But the researchers considered any drink that gets 100 percent of its calories from sugar as unhealthy -- and sports beverages fall into that category.

"Sports drinks are basically soda," Rich said. But consumers, particularly kids, may view them as health foods, he noted.

The American Beverage Association, which represents the industry, said its members have been careful to avoid targeting young children.

"This study, in fact, reaffirms that children younger than 12 are not the age group primarily viewing food- and beverage-related advertisements that include professional athletes," the group said in a statement. "Our industry offers consumers a variety of choices to help make informed decisions and we respect parents' roles as the primary decision makers in choosing what their children consume."

Rich agreed, saying parents need to be savvy consumers and teach their kids to do the same. He suggested that when an athlete endorsement pops up on your TV screen, talk to your kids about it. "Let them know, just because Peyton Manning is sitting by a jug of Gatorade, that doesn't mean Gatorade made him what he is today," Rich said.

Bragg agreed, but "just being aware isn't enough," she added.

"Ideally, athletes would stop promoting unhealthy foods," Bragg said. And if parents are really concerned, she noted, they could "find ways to be vocal about it" -- such as supporting nutrition advocacy groups.

What this study cannot say is whether kids, or adults, actually eat more junk food because of athletes' endorsements. Both Rich and Bragg pointed to the millions of dollars that companies are willing to pay athletes: NBA star Kobe Bryant earned an estimated $12 million per year from his contract with McDonald's, Bragg's team wrote.

"If companies are investing that much," Bragg said, "I think it's safe to assume there's a reason."

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