When Good Celebrities Promote Bad Foods

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What happens when celebrity role models get behind healthy habits and junk food?

Recently, TIME wrote about mounting criticism of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign, which fights childhood obesity by encouraging youngsters to become more physically active, but has signed on Beyonce and Shaquille O’Neal, both of whom also endorse sodas, which are a major contributor to the obesity epidemic. Now there’s more evidence of how powerful a celebrity — especially a professional athlete — can be in influencing children’s behavior.

(MORE: Let’s Move: But Not With Shaq and Beyonce)

In a report published by the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University in the journal Pediatrics, researchers studied 100 professional athletes and their endorsement contracts, using Businessweek’s 2010 Power 100 report, which ranks athletes based on their endorsement value and prominence in their given sport. The team focused on athletes since they are theoretically the best role models for active, healthy lifestyles for children. After sorting the deals by category, they determined that among the 512 brands associated with the athletes, most involved sporting goods, followed closely by food and beverage brands.

(MORE: Healthy Lifestyle Ads From Big Soda: Hypocritical or Helpful?)

Sports drinks, which are often high in sugar and calories made up most of the food and drink deals, with soft drinks and fast food filling out the remainder. Of the 46 beverages endorsed by professional athletes, 93% relied exclusively on sugar for all of their calories.

The athletes with the most food and beverage brand endorsements were LeBron James, Peyton Manning and Serena Williams. James has promoted Sprite and McDonald’s while Manning has pushed Papa John’s (he owns many locations) and Williams has promoted McDonald’s and Gatorade (albeit the low-calorie version).

(MORE: Q&A with the White House Chef on Healthy Eating)

It’s no surprise that high profile athletes can influence children’s eating behaviors, but the scientists were able to quantify how prevalent these endorsements are in the children’s environment. Advertisements featuring professional athletes and their endorsed products tend to get impressive exposure, on TV, radio, in print and online. And in 2010, the researchers reported that children ages 12 to 17 saw more athlete-endorsed food and beverage brand commercials than adults.

“One reason any campaign wants a popular celebrity spokesperson is because kids are attracted to them no matter what they are doing. Kids look up to them, and they want to be like them. We can’t expect kids to turn off that admiration when the same person is selling sugar. At best, kids might be confused. At worst, they’ll think the messages about soda are the same as the messages about water, and those two beverages aren’t the same,” Andrew Cheyne, a researcher at the Berkeley Media Studies Group, told TIME.

If children are turning to athletes as role models, it’s in their best interest if their idols are consistent. Consistent messaging of positive behaviors will showcase healthier lifestyles to emulate.