Posted by: ezzakazhall | August 17, 2012

Who’s afraid of the Big Bad Mac?!

I thought it was time for another post about the Olympics, following on from my last one. I watched the Games religiously this time (I probably enjoyed them more than my sports-mad husband, to be honest!) and, in a rare moment of patriotism, I am hugely proud of our teeny-tiny, itty-bitty country for bringing home a large haul of medals, including six gold. And I will admit to furiously fanning my eyes during some of those medal ceremonies.

However, it would appear that the London Games not only sparked a little extra obesity panic in New Zealanders alongside all that extra patriotism. Which was triggered by the same issues explored in my last post- that’s right, sponsorship of the Games by McDonalds.

This article appeared on the news site Voxy on 10 August, just a few days shy of the closing ceremony. It quotes Elaine Rush, Professor of Nutrition at the Auckland University of Technology, who is pushing for the New Zealand Olympic Committee to lobby to “remove the public exposure to McDonalds and Coca Cola as major sponsors of the Olympics.”

Says Prof. Rush:

“One ad, which has been screening during the games, features a small child eating McDonalds chips while watching the Olympics…

“We know that children look up to the athletes at the Olympics and rightly so. They are amazing athletes who have dedicated their lives to representing their country by achieving at the highest level.

“Millions of children receive the message linking fast food and drink with sporting achievement. This will not only be detrimental for their long-term health but adversely affects all of society. Products from both Coca Cola and McDonalds are energy rich but nutrient-poor. So not only is this adding to the obesity epidemic it is leading to our children having a lack of essential vitamins and minerals.”

Of course. Won’t someone think of the children?

I have discussed the issues I had with the London Assembly proposing a ban on McDonalds and Coca-Cola’s sponsorship of the Olympic games in my last entry on the topic (linked above). The issues that came to mine for me were as follows:

1) Given McDonalds has been a sponsor of the Olympics since 1976 (and Coke since 1928), the London Assembly is slightly late to the party- and I’m not sure if this is indicative of rising obesity statistics, or just a greater societal preoccupation with obesity.

2) I had concerns about the idea that athleticism and the occasional consumption of takeaways were mutually exclusive. For instance, I mentioned Usain Bolt’s chicken nugget addiction and Danyon Loader’s sweet tooth. Shortly after I made that blog post, Hurricanes Fullback Andre Taylor featured in an episode of The Crowd Goes Wild, during which he confessed to a slight penchant for KFC. Champion gymnast and “Flying Squirrel” Gabby Douglas confessed on Jay Leno’s show to splurging on an Egg McMuffin after winning gold (after which she was “jokingly” scolded by Michelle Obama). Clearly, no-one’s perfect and even sportspeople are prone to the occasional indulgence.

3) I also had concerns about the idea that larger bodies and athleticism were mutually exclusive. I mentioned, for example, Sarah Robles and Holley Mangold, two US weightlifters who represented their country in London, who would almost certainly fit within the definition of obesity, according to the BMI chart. In fact, if we’re measuring obesity against the BMI scale (that is, a ratio of weight to height) then our very own double gold-medalist Valerie Adams is, at 1.96m tall and 120kg, technically obese- with a BMI of 31. As would also be most of the US basketball team, as very tall and muscular people are also considered obese on the BMI chart. As is All Blacks Prop Tony Woodcock, at 1.84m and 118kg (BMI of almost 35).

4) I didn’t mention this on my last blog on the topic – but, while there have been concerns that McDonalds products are contributing to the “obesity epidemic”, there are myriad causes of obesity, not solely poor diet. Issues with body weight can also be caused by various medications, such as steroids, psychotherapeutic medications and anti-cancer drugs; by health problems, such as hyperthyroidism and polycystic ovarian syndrome; and can also be a result of traumatic life events, such as depression or serious injuries (both of which can result in periods of inactivity). In addition…excessive consumption of alcohol can also lead to weight gain. Yet, there are still brands of alcohol sponsoring sports events, both in New Zealand and overseas.

While the same issues came up for me upon reading the Voxy piece…I will say that Prof Rush has a point of sorts. Yes, McDonalds products are, as she says, energy rich and nutrient poor, and it is important that children get the vitamins and minerals they need. This young lass shows us what can happen if young people do not get a varied diet, and live solely off chicken nuggets and french fries (however…she wasn’t actually fat…). I can also imagine that, while training, an Olympian’s diet would probably look something more like this.

As this Huffington Post opinion piece points out, fast food advertising can be a powerful, seductive tool. Says the article, “their ads are too clever to nag you to fill up on Big Macs and large Cokes. Instead, they worm their way into your heart to create warm, fuzzy feelings.”  So, if we, as a society, are wanting children to eat fewer nuggets and more veggies, “warm fuzzy” advertisements such as the one with the father and son sharing fries while watching the Games (I’m guessing that’s the one Prof Rush was referring to) may not be the best idea. However, while I can understand the desire to protect kids from the seductiveness of such advertising, one thing I would like to see is statistical evidence showing that the message “linking fast food to athletic achievement” is adversely affecting New Zealand children- and that children are actually buying into it.

Has anyone actually surveyed kiwi kids of a certain age to find out if they do associate competitive sport with Big Macs and Large Cokes? Or if they believe a steady diet of McDonalds will be their ticket to Rio 2016? Or if there has been a spike in the number of families with young children dining in at McDonalds since the most recent Olympics? Or, for that matter, a spike in customers signing up with ANZ bank, the official partner of the New Zealand Olympic team? Or a spike of sales of Bell Tea, one of the official sponsors of Equestrian New Zealand (and Mark Todd)? Or Powerade, which ran ads featuring cyclist Ali Shanks? Or of Head and Shoulders shampoo, endorsed by Michael Phelps, or Pantene, endorsed by US swimmer Natalie Coughlin? Or of other Procter and Gamble brands, after these adorable ads? If McDonalds’ sponsorship and advertising during the Olympics is linking sporting achievement with fast food- surely these other products are also linked to sporting achievement in the same way?

In all seriousness, it would be interesting to see if any such research would be carried out, if the NZOC were to lobby for a ban on McDonalds’ sponsorship. And if products that sponsor sports or sporting events are consumed more than those that do not. Plus, something I would mention is that I am yet to see any advertisements on New Zealand television that use Olympians or any other sports people to endorse McDonalds (the Vodafone Warriors having their own burger is the only thing I can think of). However, I have seen plenty of advertisements for weight loss programmes (Jenny Craig being the most common) featuring celebrities- Mariah Carey, Mel B, Shortland Street actress Stephanie Tauevihi and Dame Edna to name but a few. Given studies have shown that dieting and weight cycling can also be harmful to health, is it a wise idea to have young children connecting famous figures with diet programmes? As discussed in my post of 2 August, messages about weight control can result in poor body image for young people (and I have, unfortunately, known of parents who have put their pre-teens on Jenny Craig…).

As I also discussed on my 2 August blog, I am all for promoting healthful living – and I mentioned several initiatives employed in New Zealand for promoting healthy living to children and their families. One programme I didn’t mention is the Green Prescription, which supports families to be more physically active- and which was mentioned in this Manuwatu Standard article  as helping a young man and his mother make positive changes. On the topic of the Olympics, the NZOC runs the Olympic Schools programme, which encourages primary school children to take part in sporting activities. I can support encouraging healthy food choices and physical activity- much more so than banning fast food advertising or its sponsorship of sporting events. At least not without evidence that children are linking fast food with sporting achievement.

Once again, thoughts are appreciated.



  1. Brilliant post, Erin!!!

  2. Sad, really.

    If you put as much energy into weight loss as you do into obsessing about ‘fat acceptance’, you’d be a healthier weight by now.

    But it’s your life.

    Until recently, I smoked. It was my ‘problem’, and mine alone – it would never have occurred to me to fight for ‘smoker acceptance’ (though our social suffering makes yours look like a walk in the park).

    Point is, if you *really* care about future generations, you’d realise that the last thing in the world we need is ‘fat acceptance’. A war on drugs is a joke; a war on fat is a war than can be won. ‘Accepting’ it is like accepting cancer. Why would you?

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