Pro sports faulted for fattening fans, old and young, with blitzes of food ads

kidtv-300x225If Americans want to battle obesity, including among youngsters, one place to start is avoiding unhealthy food products hawked relentlessly by major league sports advertisers.

Weight woes plague grownups and show no signs of letting up — they’re increasing, instead, with 40 percent of Americans found to be obese in 2015 and 2016, a sharp increase over a decade earlier. The picture’s no prettier for young people, with the latest federal data showing the percentage of children ages 2 to 19 who are obese increased from 14 percent in 1999 to 18.5 percent in 2015 and 2016.

With studies showing that junk food and empty calories contribute significantly to making the nation an excessive waist-land, Vox, an online information site, deserves credit for pointing out how pervasive, insidious, and even accepted it has become for sports fans — especially young enthusiasts — to be barraged by advertising for fast and unhealthful meals, sugar-laden drinks and cereals, and foods full of fats, empty calories, and excess salt.

Pro football, followed by major league baseball, plays the leading heavies in exposing fans, especially youngsters, to Big Food products that researchers also have determined are among the most unhealthy, according to published research, cited by Vox, and partly funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.

Researchers, led by a population health Ph.D. at New York University, found that there were more than 400 million views by Americans younger than 17 of major league sports’ food-related ads, mostly from sponsors like McDonald’s, PepsiCo, Mars, Kraft Heinz, and Kellogg. When the experts analyzed the promoted products, especially those targeted at kids, they found that most “did not qualify as nutritious.”

That can be harmful to the health of sports viewers, particularly kids, because, as Marie Bragg, assistant professor of population health at NYU School of Medicine and the study’s lead author, told Vox:

‘There is overwhelming evidence that kids eat more when they see food ads compared to when they see non-food ads. [Our] study shows us, in addition to the more generic food ads that young people are seeing on TV, they are also getting a heavy dose of these ads through sports sponsorships. And the association with sports may be especially problematic — it fuses this healthy activity with this really unhealthy message.’

As she also observed, “[Children] see these pro athletes at the pinnacle of physical fitness — then cut to a commercial and see sponsorship for chips and sugary drinks. At [best], it’s an ironic paradox. At worst, it could lead kids to think these products are healthier than they are.”

In my practice, I  see not only the  harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services but also the toll inflicted on them by overweight and obesity. Carrying excess weight, combined with a sedentary lifestyle and compounded by smoking, puts too many Americans in the cross-hairs for cancers, diabetes, and an array of heart and lung conditions.

Americans already are reckoning with how their mania for sports and pro sports can lead to health harms, notably due to brain injury tied to concussion and other head trauma — in football, hockey, soccer, and an array of sporting activities. These problems loom especially large for young athletes who must weigh their present social lives, fun, and other pleasant experiences they get in sports against long-term damages, about which the evidence mounts daily.

Parents and kids are learning to just say no to early and frequent exposure to long-term athletic injury, and advocates for improved nutrition and eating by kids have scored some successes in getting junk food purveyors and advertisers voluntarily to ease up with their targeting of kids.

But we all must do our individual parts, too, in better managing sleep, stress, work, exercise, and diet to combat excess weight gain. Small steps can add up to big health benefits, and those who want to eat better, exercise more, and be more healthful may want to re-inspire themselves and ready their bodies more for, if for nothing else, warm weather and the hectic, energetic Spring and Summer ahead by clicking on these how-to guides:

Photo credit: Michael Cramer @ Creative Commons

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