Junk Food OlympiAds: Athletes Fuel Games’ Fast-Food Assault

A few of them do eat the stuff. But should they be selling it?

U.S. Olympic gold medal gymnast Shawn Johnson poses with Ronald McDonald at the McDonald's flagship restaurant in Olympic Park. Johnson endorses both McDonald's and Coca-Cola. (Getty)

Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

Hurdler LoLo Jones would love for you to bite into a Big Mac. And wrestler Henry Cejudo would be thrilled if you’d wash that down with an ice-cold soda. It’s what they do all the time—or so they make you think. On the Olympics page of Coca-Cola's website, amputee Paralympic swimmer Jessica Long appears in her swimsuit, hair wet, holding—you guessed it—a soda. She apparently doesn’t even have time to towel off after a tough workout or a race before grabbing a bottled high-calorie, high-sugar beverage.

“They’re giving people mixed messages,” says Claire Kennedy, MS, RD, a licensed dietitian nutritionist at Tufts Health Center in Boston. “The worst thing you can do when you’re coming in from a swim or a run is to grab a Coke.”

Athletes have endorsed junk food for years, but emotions over seeing the fittest athletes in the world selling burgers, submarine sandwiches, sugary cereals and sodas seem stronger this year. Maybe it’s the amount of information we have about what constitutes a healthy diet. Or perhaps it’s our awareness that we as a nation are fat, and we’re only getting fatter. For almost everyone who sees these ads, there’s an unbelievability factor that kicks in when they’re led to believe speedskater Apolo Ohno fills up on sandwiches from Subway or American boxer Marlen Esparza routinely bobs and weaves to McDonald’s for French fries.

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“When you’re seeing them on TV selling those things, you’re assuming they’re consuming those things,” Kennedy says. “It doesn’t make sense to me. They should be eating healthy and making healthy choices.”

Some have argued that some of these athletes probably do eat a ton of empty calories, including fast food, just to replace the massive amount of energy burned during a typical daily workout. Ryan Lochte told The Wall Street Journal that he ate nothing but McDonald’s in the days leading up to his four medals at the Beijing Olympics, while swimmer Ricky Berens waited until after winning the 4x200-meter freestyle relay last week to indulge in a massive meal from the golden arches. And while reports of swimmer and Subway spokesman Michael Phelps’s 12,000-calorie-a-day diet seem to be more tall tale than truth, there’s no doubt that many Olympic athletes—swimmers, especially—eat a lot.

However, Kennedy rejects the idea that those calories must come from junk food, saying, “You want to eat the calories that are high in nutritional value.” Lochte appears to have gotten this memo. The swimmer now says he gave up junk food two years ago.

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Even if high-performing athletes can handle their junk food, perhaps more concerning are the messages athletes send to fans about what they should be eating. Children, especially—many who aspire to become swimmers or gymnasts—are particularly susceptible to these junk food advertisements, Kennedy says. “It’s showing them exactly what not to do,” she says.

Many have criticized the International Olympic Committee for naming McDonald’s and Coca-Cola as the two “Olympic Partner” sponsors. McDonald’s even won exclusive rights to peddle burgers in the Olympic Village, and try finding a non-Coke product at any of the events. But despite fierce efforts prior to the Games to ban them, the world’s most recognizable junk food makers won’t disappear from the Olympics any time soon. Reports are that each paid the IOC $100 million for their coveted positions.

Still, regardless of what the Olympic committee does, athletes must hold themselves to a higher standard regarding their influence, wrote British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver in a pre-Olympic letter in The Times.

“We believe it is wrong for athletes to encourage the excessive consumption of such items, which are fuelling poor health and obesity,” he wrote in the letter. “We would ask athletes to be very conscious of the effect their endorsements may have on the future lives of youngsters. Obesity does not just carry physical consequences but serious social and emotional ones as well.”

Does it bother you to see Olympic athletes endorsing unhealthy food?

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