Olympic Games + Junk Food Ads = Outrageous Combination

McDonald’s and Coca-Cola as premier sponsors of these Olympic Games? I take issue with that.

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Over the course of the generally wonderful and inspiring London Olympic Games, now drawn to a close, something rather ominous about the superimposition of money, mouths, and medals was persistently on my mind—and remains so now.

Our mouths are important, and how we use them matters. They are the source of our words, and consequently, our premier capacity to share ideas, ideals, and convictions with one another. Our mouths give voice to our character.

They are the means by which we deliver essential fuel to our striving hearts, and straining muscles. They are also the source of breath, such as the great gulps of it that powered some of the astounding and historic performances we were privileged to witness at the London Games.

And they are, famously, a place we are supposed to put our money. Not literally, of course, but in the sense that we should invest in our convictions. What we believe in should be about more than just rhetoric. The investment might be time, effort, or action—but it might, of course, be actual money we mobilize to support the causes that provoke our passions. So mouths and money, figuratively, make a powerful pair.

Money, it has been said, makes the world go round. How we align it with what's coming out of our mouths matters.

So, potentially, does the source, and hygiene, of the money in question. Money, arguably, comes in three grades of hygiene. There is, in principle at least, clean money—money that's only ever exchanged for good and worthy deeds. I like to think such dollars truly exist, and hail them if they do!

There is, as well, dirty money—money it would shame any decent person to touch, let alone spend. The ill-gotten gains of organized crime and drug cartels come to mind.

But much of the green, perhaps most, lies between many shades of gray. A salient example is when large entities profiting while contributing to some significant global problem—such as climate change, or human exploitation, or discrimination, or obesity—spend token money on some aspect of the solution. The quintessential example of this is money tobacco companies have spent (generally because they've had no choice) on smoking cessation and prevention programs—even while spending a great deal more on peddling their product.

Which brings us back to the Olympics—and those medals. Anyone watching the games was subject to an unending series of advertisements by two of NBC's premier sponsors: Coca-Cola and McDonalds. Olympic athletes—our heroes and role models of the hour—were seen deriving comfort from Coca-Cola pool-side and track-side, and competing for McDonald's fries, or burgers, or shakes.

Like public health, Olympic training is in perennial need of funding. So on the one hand, we might be thankful that corporate America is stepping up. But this, of course, is not altruism; it's marketing.

The elements in the food industry most implicated in the prevailing health threats of our time, obesity and diabetes notable among them, routinely place a selective emphasis on the importance of physical activity. By sponsoring sport at the highest level, and by draping themselves vicariously in the glory of Olympic medals, McDonalds and Coca-Cola are doing just that. The ads that played repeatedly implied that while intensive training was critical to the success of the athletes, what they ate or drank apparently was irrelevant.

This is false in the short term. High-performance bodies require high-performance fuel, and achieve the greatest feats of success only when they get it. Nutrition professionals and carefully designed diets figure into the training of most elite athletes; they are not, as the ads implied, runnin' on McDonalds and Coca-Cola.

And it is even more flagrantly false in the long term. Young, healthy bodies are, temporarily, stunningly resistant to the ill effects of eating badly. And at the extreme, physical exertion can expend enough calories to forestall weight gain almost no matter what. But all intense athleticism eventually stops, and when it does, the consequences of eating badly catch up very quickly. I count among my friends former professional athletes who have undergone bariatric surgery and/or are being treated for type 2 diabetes.

I know many good people in the food industry. And I am among those who believe that collaboration between public health and those elements in the food industry committed to doing well by doing good may represent the best hope we have for improving the typical American diet—and thus the typical American's health.

But there is real danger in giving entities making great contributions to our troubles excessive credit for token contributions to the solutions. The tobacco industry perfected this technique, and in a recent editorial, my Yale colleague, Kelly Brownell, suggests that food industry elements are reprising it, chapter and verse.

Mouths and money make a powerful, influential combination. So it was wrong—with the world, and in particular our children, looking on—to put the money and suspect products of some of the greatest contributors to pandemic obesity where the mouths of our Olympic heroes were. It was wrong to pretend that what athletes eat and drink is unimportant to their performance and health. It was wrong to imply that sponsorship of the exertions in which calories are expended exonerates the provision of those calories through the medium of junk foods.

It was a perilously muddled message, as our impressionable children looked on, to link corporate dollars fueling the epidemic of obesity with the mouths of athletes, and the borrowed glory of Olympic medals.

The London Games have now concluded. I worry that the influence of these marketing liaisons will reverberate for some time to come.

Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns, and feedback.

David L. Katz, MD, MPH, FACPM, FACP, is a specialist in internal medicine and preventive medicine, with particular expertise in nutrition, weight management, and chronic-disease prevention. He is the founding director of Yale University's Prevention Research Center, and principal inventor of the NuVal nutrition guidance system. Katz was named editor-in-chief of Childhood Obesity in 2011, and is president-elect of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine.