Athletes must be in tip-top shape to compete at the pro-level, and once they attain fame, endorsement deals come rolling in. But a new study shows that the majority of foods these star athletes promote are nutrient-poor, encouraging young people to adopt bad eating habits.

The study, which appears in print in November, is currently published online in the journal Pediatrics.

Researchers say that previous studies have shown that parents are more likely to buy foods that are marketed by pro-athletes, as they are seen to be “healthier.”

Additionally, in 2010, children between the ages of 12 and 17 saw the most food and beverage commercials that were endorsed by athletes, making these products highly desirable to a young audience.

Marie A. Bragg, co-author of the study, told Medical News Today:

The fact that some of the world’s most physically fit athletes would endorse such unhealthy foods is a really striking irony that prompted investigation into this subject.”

As such, she and her colleagues selected 100 professional athletes on the basis of Bloomberg Businessweek’s 2010 Power 100 rankings, a list that ranks athletes based on their endorsement value and importance within their sport.

Information on endorsements was collected from the Power 100 list, as well as an advertisement database.

These 100 athletes endorsed 512 brands, with sporting goods and apparel representing the largest category – at 28.3% – followed by food and drinks – at 23.8%.

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The majority of beverages celebrity athletes endorse receive 100% of their calories from added sugars, the study reveals.

To assess the nutritional quality of the foods from these endorsements, researchers used a Nutrient Profiling Index. They assessed drinks based on the percentage of calories from added sugar.

The researchers found that most of the food and beverage endorsements were for sports drinks, soft drinks and fast food.

In total, 93% of the endorsed beverages received 100% of their calories from added sugars. Additionally, 79% of the food products were energy-dense and nutrient-poor, researchers add.

More than other athletes, LeBron James, Peyton Manning and Serena Williams had the most food and beverage endorsements. The researchers say they also had the most endorsements for these energy-dense, nutrient-poor items.

The researchers conclude their study by writing that physically-fit celebrities who endorse unhealthy food and drinks are sending mixed messages to kids concerning diet and health. They urge athletes to become aware of the nutritional worth of these products before endorsing them.

Marie A. Bragg told Medical News Today:

Hopefully this study raises awareness about the issue of athletes promoting unhealthy food so that parents and policymakers can have a dialogue about how to address the issue. It is unclear why athletes specifically might endorse such foods, but it is clear that food companies pay millions of dollars for these contracts.”

Bragg also said that she and her colleagues would like to conduct future research “on how food consumption is affected by athlete endorsement advertisements,” adding that “it would be important to see if people eat more as a result of seeing these sorts of ads.”

Medical News Today recently reported on a study that revealed disappointed sports fans are more likely to eat junk food.