Major sports leagues, instead of promoting a healthy lifestyle, are pushing junk food to children, according to the study titled Sports Sponsorships of Food and Nonalcoholic Beverages that was published in the Pediatrics journal.

A paper that was published in February attributed the alarming increase in childhood obesity levels to a so-called junk food culture. The problem, apparently, is being made worse by the sponsorships of major sports leagues.

Sports League Sponsorships Promote Junk Food

According to the new study helmed by New York University researcher Marie Bragg, three out of every four food advertisements and about half of drink advertisements during major sports programs in the United States promote junk food with high levels of calories and sugar.

"There is an inherent message in sports about the importance of physical fitness and health, and diet is a huge part of fitness and health," Bragg said. However, she noted that major sports leagues promote junk food to children for mixed signals that go against maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

"That mixed message, I think, is problematic for diseases like obesity and diabetes, especially among young people who are watching these programs," Bragg added.

Bragg and her team focused on the 10 sports leagues with the highest number of viewers below 18 years old. In order, that would be the NFL, NCAA, NBA, FIFA, MLB, NASCAR, NHL, PGA, Little League, and UFC.

Overall, the researchers found that 19 percent of the sponsors were from the food and beverage industry, second only to sponsors from the auto industry. However, when the researchers took a look at the nutritional content of the promoted products, 76 percent of the food was unhealthy, and 52 percent of the beverages were either soda or other sugar-sweetened drinks.

According to Jennifer Emond, a researcher from Dartmouth College's Geisel School of Medicine, children who watch advertisements for junk food such as chips and candy will eat more of the unhealthy food, even if they already ate. This is called "cued eating," according to Emond, and this happens as early as in preschool children.

What Should The Major Sports Leagues Do?

The study recommended the major sports leagues to create more health-conscious policies that limit partnerships with sponsors promoting unhealthy products. That may be hard to think of, though, considering how much money these sponsors are investing in the sports organizations.

The authors of the study, however, pointed to the decision of McDonald's ending its sponsorship of the Olympics after criticism from public health advocates as an example that such a thing could happen.

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