Olympic-sized Sell Job: Promoting Unhealthy Eating to Fans and Athletes

by Dr. Phil Maffetone.

The lead story in a recent Sports Illustrated article online began, “Almost every dominant performance in London has raised eyebrows, if not questions. These are today’s Olympics.” While the article went on to discuss the unhealthy issue of doping in sports, those two simple sentences brought to mind an even more serious and greater common problem.

Hundreds of millions of people around the world watched the London 2012 Olympic Games on TV. They saw some great performances, heart-breaking disappointments, and far too many commercials for junk food and beverages.

Certainly, junk food has contributed not only to the worldwide obesity epidemic, but heart disease and other illnesses. But now, after years in the making, it’s finally being recognized that it’s not only couch potatoes who are getting unhealthy, it’s athletes too.

The growing awareness includes athletes on all levels, including Olympians. Two conditions dominate: debilitating diseases referred to as chronic (meaning they’ve been simmering in an unhealthy body for years), and also, the real but sensitive issue of too much body fat.

There's a giant McDonald's in the heart of London's Olympic Park -- in fact, it's the world's largest McDonald's and can seat 1,500. Once the Games are over, the McDonald's will be torn down, but not before serving 3,000,000 people.

There’s a giant McDonald’s in the heart of London’s Olympic Park — in fact, it’s the world’s largest McDonald’s and can seat 1,500. The golden arches and Olympic gold seem to go hand in hand, and hardly anyone cares. Once the Games are over, the McDonald’s will be torn down, but not before serving 3,000,000 people.

And what is the message being sent to fans as well as athletes? That you can be fit but also unhealthy?

In the 2007 U.S. marathon trials, Ryan Shay, one of America’s best and a favorite for the Olympic team, collapsed and died about five miles into the race. It was sad, of course, any way we look at it. Ryan had a heart attack. But why were so many people confused about the death of such a great athlete at age 28, New York City’s Chief Medical Examiner, who added to the confusion with his report, said the cause of Shay’s death was, “cardiac arrhythmia due to cardiac hypertrophy with patchy fibrosis of undetermined etiology. Natural causes.” Natural causes? There’s nothing natural about a young, very fit athlete whose heart stops during competition.

Today, news reports of athletes dying in the course of competition are not uncommon. (Tragically, a competitor died in the first-ever New York City Ironman triathlon on Saturday after suffering a heart attack during the 2.4-mile swim section in the Hudson River that also was the scene of a massive sewage spill earlier in the week.) While we take physical injury and health risks as an intrinsic element of participatory sports, we’re bewildered when a seemingly healthy and young athlete drops dead. But healthy people don’t have heart attacks.

Alberto Salazar, currently a distance coach for Nike and former national and world champion from 5K to the marathon, was moments away from death when his heart attack hit at 48 years young. Salazar asked his cardiologist, Todd Caulfield, M.D., Provident St. Vincent Medical Center in Portland, Oregon, to speak publicly about his condition, which included previous medications for high blood pressure and cholesterol, which could not prevent the heart attack.

I mean no harm to Alberto, who is a great guy. And two of his athletes won gold and silver in the 10,000-meter event in London—England’s Mo Farah and America’s Galen Rupp finishing first and second, respectively, with Farah also winning gold in the 5,000 and Rupp coming in 1oth.

Former basketball star Hank Gathers, bestselling running author Jim Fixx, and many other very fit athletes from amateurs to professionals in all sports, and too many more whose names are not popular, have died or came close to death during training and competition. In most cases, their conditions were preventable.

In active individuals, prevention of heart disease, which is commonly accompanied by high blood fats and hypertension, is primarily accomplished by a healthy diet. The Centers for Disease Control and Preventions (CDC) list four habits that cause preventable conditions such as heart disease: smoking, inactivity, alcohol abuse, and diet. While most athletes don’t have problems with the first three, they do have very poor eating habits. (I’ve performed thousands of computerized dietary assessments in athletes throughout my career.)

But a serious problem is brewing. Is the world accepting of fit athletes dying at young ages? After all, in non-contact sports such as running, cycling, triathlon and others, injuries are now considered part of the game. Overtraining may be the most common cause of chronic injuries, and not just physical impairments but those of a chemical nature (such as fatigue) and mental ones (depression).

As great as many athletes may be, reductions in their health will also impair their performance to some degree.

As American sprinter Manteo Mitchell got midway through the start of the 400-meter relay in the London Games, he felt, and heard, his leg crack. But he could not stop, sprinting the best he could to finish his part of the relay, enabling the American team to finish second and move on the finals.

A victory, no doubt, and an incredibly courageous effort by a young Olympian. Gutsy, heroic, and moments the Olympic Game’s are often remembered for. Afterwards Mitchell would find out the bone on the outside of his leg (the fibia) had fractured.

Without discounting Mitchell’s valor, I can’t help but think of something even more unsettling—why would a young, super-fit athlete’s bone fracture during a short running event? Mitchell thought that perhaps his misstep while walking the stairs a few days earlier caused it. But leading up to the race, including his warm up, he ran without any problem.

Bones don’t just break, especially in a highly trained, elite athlete, without some physiologic reason. It could from muscle or hormone imbalance or other causes, but most likely due to some health problem contributing to a weak bone in a fit body.

Looking at the broader picture, a much more sensitive and equally serious issue is that the “fat fallout” from the worldwide obesity epidemic has reached the athletic community. Perhaps for the first time, this Olympics has spawned a few controversial articles about overweight competitors, bringing to light the reality that fit but overfat athletes do exist.

Certainly those of us, like myself, who have worked with athletes for many years have seen this problem brewing for decades. The question will be whether weekend warriors and recreational runners, including marathoners, will accept this overfat state. It’s even prevalent in triathlons, despite all the training hours that participants have logged.

While some athletes clearly have too much body fat—you can see it, and it’s also been measured—others who appear slim have their fat elsewhere. Salazar is not an unusual case—some of his arteries were 80 percent clogged with fat.

I wish I could help. But I’m just a David among Goliath corporations—deep-pocketed gargantuan whose goals are to make the entire world fat. And they’re exploiting athletes to help their propaganda succeed. Case in point: Coke is celebrating the 2012 Olympics with specially marked cans. By the way, that’s the equivalent of 8 teaspoons of sugar for each 12-oz serving (it’s actually made with high-fructose corn syrup).

A key message of soft drink and junk food companies is that sugar—one of the main causes of the overfat epidemic—is good for everyone. As an athlete, you might even believe it can help with energy. No surprise here that PowerAde is owned by Coca-Cola, and Gatorade is owned by Pepsi. But the fact is, 40 to 50 percent of the sugar one eats, athlete or not, turns to fat and goes into the body’s storage spaces. In doing so, it can raise blood fats, contribute to hypertension and increase the risk of death from heart disease. Moreover, it can impair energy regulation.

Refined sugar intake can increase the body’s production of insulin, which, among other problems, can reduce the amount of fat burned during exercise. While the body burns both sugar and fat calories for energy, the proper balance of these fuels is important for weight control and overall health—and athletic proficiency.

The very companies that sponsor the Olympics are doing a lot of the dirty work. McDonald’s and Coca-Cola are banking on the fact that their Olympic marketing campaigns have been highly successful—especially with children and teens who, these companies hope, will become lifelong customers.

The same marketing tactics were used by cigarette brand Virginia Slims. The cigarette company sponsored athletic events—not just tennis but even a New York City 10K running race—for years before lawsuits prevented tobacco companies from advertising in print, TV and radio. Is there anyone (besides Big Tobacco) that can’t see the conflict of interest here?

The conflict of interest is just as obvious in companies that advertise sugar-laden soft drinks and other junk food during the Olympics. But the level of acceptance with these unhealthy food products is not yet like that of tobacco.

Society cannot keep avoiding the obvious and continue allowing companies to reap financial benefits by selling harmful products—the very foods that significantly contribute to heart disease and other deadly conditions—while portraying slim, healthy-looking individuals using the products. In the 1950s, doctors were seen in magazine print ads claiming that smoking cigarettes was actually good for you.

It’s not a stretch, but imagine the Mexican drug cartel or the Russian mafia vying for an Olympic sponsorship. I could see the ads: “Our products are 100 percent natural—we guarantee it!” Or, “when your bank says ‘no’ we will lend you money in a heartbeat—no credit, no problem.”

This is not all that farfetched. I could also imagine the outcry.

But the cries about junk food are only starting to be heard. While society has accepted Coke and McDonald’s, and the hundreds of other companies making deadly products, there may be hope. A movement has been underway by people who want to ban the sale of unhealthy products in places like schools, cities and even countries.

In the meantime, prime time TV will continue portraying athletes who are fit, not necessarily healthy, while, unfortunately, more athletes will die an untimely death, typically from a preventable condition.

Dr. Phil Maffetone’s most recent book is “The Big Book of Health and Fitness.”



5 Responses to “Olympic-sized Sell Job: Promoting Unhealthy Eating to Fans and Athletes”

  1. Chardee05 says:

    To quote your article: …”said the cause of Shay’s death was, “cardiac arrhythmia due to cardiac hypertrophy with patchy fibrosis of undetermined etiology. Natural causes.” Natural causes? There’s nothing natural about a young, very fit athlete whose heart stops during competition.”

    My point: IN athletes, especially those who compete at a professional level, a compensation mechanism of the circulatory system is cardiac hypertrophy. This is sadly a very common thing that happens (not death per say, but hypertrophy). Also, with all due respect, these examples of athletes that you have used are all very far-fetched:

    Mr. Salazar- Indeed, he had a heart attack, if you google the man though, there is not an ounce of fat on him. I suspect latin-american heredity and quite possibly cardiac hypertrophy due to a lifetime of athleticism in the case of the medications that he was on.

    Mr. Mitchell who broke a bone in his leg at London- You are suggesting an improper diet broke his leg? Certainly you jest. Overuse, the race of a lifetime shattered the bone; adrenaline like never before helped him finish.

    I admire your article, however suggesting that modern day athletes are less fit than those of yesteryear because of diet and the influence of McDonald’s completley disregards the success of Mr. Phelps (who, himself has an Everest sized daily intake) and Mr. Bolt, both athletes in the circle of modern day Olympians who continue to shatter records. I would say that the athlete of today is better than those of previous generations (controlled substance use aside).

    I agree in the degradation of public health due to the onslaught of the McDonald’s temples we built to the gods of our convenience, however, I also see that events such as the Olympics are not possible without the influence of big money from Big Macs. McDonald’s exists, you can’t stop it, so use it for your own good, use it to push your initiatives. Saying that the Cartel and the Mafia are like McDonald’s puts your reputation in danger in most circles, let’s not even open that pandora’s box.

    I love natural eating, I was directed here from such a forum, however this is article is a stretch. This is what turns people away, eat naturally, love your food and where it comes from. The message is simple, no need to drag the Mafia into this. Pardon the sarcasm, I think you are brilliant in the economics of health, but I just want a proper discussion.

    C.K., M.D.

  2. MarkC says:


    Thanks for the article and CK for the comments. Good debate, similar to Coke sponsoring physician groups and McDonalds building daycare playgrounds. We likely canot stop the corporate invasion but with education each individual can make their own decisions.

    it is sad though when the developing world athletes and internationals bring the McDs and Coke culture back to their counties and with their influence start shifting behavior.


  3. Chuck W says:

    Very interesting article. I’m going to chip in and say that comparing junk food to drugs is entirely appropriate, because I think that eating refined sugar is going to be the “cigarette smoking” of the 21st century. As more research comes out, we will find that refined sugar (and junk food in general) is just as addictive and just as damaging as cigarettes and illegal drugs.
    I think comparing the junk food industry to the mafia is also appropriate, because we really can’t _overestimate_ the corrupting effect of all those billions of dollars on agriculture, health, and environmental policy.

  4. Hello C.K., and thanks for your comments.

    I have not suggested that modern athletes are less fit than those of yesteryear because of diet. My article highlights the issue of fit but unhealthy athletes, many of whom are overtrained or ignore unhealthy symptoms that may indicate a high risk for serious illness. It’s such high levels of fitness in these athletes that bring out those great performances. (It should be noted that an athlete’s health certainly could affect their performances.)

    My examples of athletes who were unhealthy—Shay, Salazar, Fixx and others—all of whom were and are very fit, are certainly not far fetched, or rare. In fact, we hear about the deaths or near-deaths regularly (I noted the unfortunate death of a 42-year old triathlete this past weekend in NY City.)

    Regarding Mitchell’s leg fracture, I don’t know the cause, nor do I know him. But I’ve seen dozens, perhaps hundreds of non-traumatic fractures of various types in runners and other athletes during my career. Like Mitchell’s case, many appeared to come out of nowhere. So it’s vital to assess these patients and attempt to find the cause of the fracture to prevent a recurrence of the problem (or future health problems).

    While I didn’t claim that diet caused Mitchell’s leg to fracture, it’s certainly possible. As highlighted in the medical literature, diets high in sugars have been associated with various health problems from abnormal levels of blood fats to being overfat—including bone loss and fractures. In particular, it’s been demonstrated that soft drink consumption is inversely related to bone mineral density.

    I would have to disagree with your comment about events such as the London 2012 Olympics not being possible without McDonald’s and Coke (and other the big money sponsors). But it can’t be denied that corporations have made the Olympics a prime time entertainment spectacle as a source of revenue for their own pockets, as well as the IOC. But not for the majority of the 10,000 athletes who competed in London. Most will return home with great memories, some with disappointments, a few with medals and in almost all the minor sports (the ones that NBC, for example, neglected to cover during prime time because it was chasing viewers and ad dollars with its focus on gymnastics, diving, and beach volleyball) they will continue to train against the backdrop of limited financial gain.

    I won’t disagree with your assessment of the strong, or rather biased nature of my article, and the use of certain analogies to drive home an important point. It’s my passion to help people see the things that may not be so obvious. We all can use help in improving our health, and fitness. But not in an environment in which people have been literally brainwashed into accepting the word or branding message of companies like Coke or McDonald’s—they are also not the only villains here either.

    Phil Maffetone

  5. Trey says:

    Dr Maffetone said: “Society cannot keep avoiding the obvious and continue allowing companies to reap financial benefits by selling harmful products…”

    ‘Society’ has done so for over a century. At least the debate on what constitutes a healthy diet is well over a century old. Sugar and white wheat flour have been singled out as particularly nasty additions to the human diet for a long time. (Current research suggests that whole wheat flour is at least as bad.) Weston Price certainly comes to mind due to his extensive travels and research in the 1930s. However, he wasn’t the only voice of dissent in the past century.

    Nevertheless, the conventional wisdom has decided that grains are healthy, animal fat and protein are ‘bad’, and sugar is okay in ‘moderation’. After all, they say: a calorie is a calorie is a calorie, people just eat too much, and people don’t get enough exercise. Therefore, we have overfat athletes who follow conventional wisdom eating low fat, almost vegan diets. When they ‘cheat’ it’s less likely to be on good cuts of fatty meats than on processed high carb snacks.

    Take a typical ‘health’ food like yogurt. I like full fat plain Greek yogurt. I can’t find it in my town. One or two stores carry regular plain yogurt, but the vast majority of yogurt is low fat, flavored and sweetened. And that is considered ‘heart healthy’! But it’s really just junk food in disguise.

    So, keeping the current state of conventional wisdom in mind, when you or I criticize McDonalds to the average American, what comes to his or her mind as the least healthy part of the meal? The meat? Okay, let’s mandate that McDonalds serve veggie burgers made from highly processed wheat and soy products. Problem solved? Of course not. I hate to say this but I’m afraid that any political solution in the so-called interests of public health would be to act against fat and meat consumption. Let’s hope that never happens. In the mean time, vote with your own dollars and sense (cents, too).

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