England, the World Cup and childhood obesity

I hope England wins the World Cup, but whatever happens, children’s health is certainly losing. The entire football “pyramid” in England is riddled with junk food companies.

Football food pyramid jpeg
The English Football Food Pyramid

Through their love of football, children in England are bombarded with marketing for ultra-processed food and drink. It continues through their early years and into adulthood. And it’s not sneaky, ambush marketing. It comes from official football organisations, events, venues, teams, and role models. While sport marketers talk about the successful “reach” of sponsorship, public health promoters focus on the potentially disastrous effects these sponsors can have on children.

But it could all end very soon. The food charity Sustain has told the government what action is needed in sport settings: “Campaigns are currently calling on sports associations to disassociate themselves from junk food brands, but if sports associations will not act, the Government must step in.”

And now a Health Committee in the UK Parliament has formally recommended it is time to end these partnerships:

“The next round of the Government’s childhood obesity plan … should also include a commitment to end sponsorship by brands overwhelmingly associated with high fat, sugar and salt products of sports clubs, venues, youth leagues and tournaments.”

THIS IS MASSIVE NEWS. Sponsorship of children’s sport by junk food companies is pervasive and predatory. It includes organisations such as the FA and FIFA, competitions such as the Premier league and Carabao Cup, venues such as Wembley, and programmes such as McDonald’s national youth sponsorship.

To keep the momentum and pressure on the government to make these changes you can state your support with Sustain here: https://www.sustainweb.org/poll/sugar/

For the health of children, this English football food pyramid needs to come tumbling down.

Joe Piggin

PS: This problem is not confined to England either. It’s global. I plan to track other countries soon. See this recent research in the USA about the pervasiveness of junk food advertising in USA sport.

McDonald’s sponsorship of UK football

The Football Associations of the United Kingdom need to change their relationship with McDonald’s.

One strand of the McDonald’s sponsorship agreement with the UK’s Football Associations appears to be “Dress the kids in McDonald’s clothing whenever possible.”

Children wearing McDonald’s uniforms. Also, title image. Source: http://www.mcdonalds.co.uk

We are all familiar with the corporate logic of “get them when they’re young” in order to build brand loyalty. But the McDonald’s strategy of adorning young football players in McDonald’s branded clothing is surely an unacceptable practice.

A football celebrity with children in McDonald’s uniforms. Source: http://www.mcdonalds.co.uk

McDonald’s calls itself a “community partner” in this extravaganza – anything to distance itself from the idea that there is a profit motive behind this apparently benevolent act.

Rapp and Jespersen (2015) would argue this practice is entangled marketing: “For companies to achieve long-term relationships with customers, they must go far beyond setting engagement as the goal. … Once entangled, a pair of particles remain inextricably connected. They never let go of one another, no matter their distance apart.” McDonald’s accomplish this by giving hundreds of thousands of young people “their first kit”. Occasionally they have celebrity role models tell groups of young players what a special day it is when they receive their first kit. For example, see this video which celebrates 250,000 McDonald’s kits being distributed to children around the UK. “McDonald’s ambassadors” hand over “brand new kit” to children in the video.

Football celebrity distributing McDonald’s branded football kits. youtube.com/user/HeresToWhatMatters

One football administrator enthusiastically recounted that “McDonald’s have provided football kit now … to over 10,000 teams in the last 2 years in Wales.”

Football celebrity distributing McDonald’s branded football kits. youtube.com/user/HeresToWhatMatters

But these shirts are not “donations” at all. They are explicitly and specifically branded with the McDonald’s arches. The children become miniature Trojan horses, and their target is the other players around them. The difference is that the “invaders” are displayed loud and clear. The McDonald’s brand is there for all the other children to see throughout their football sessions. The brand exposure, while not measured on the McDonald’s web page, must be enormous. By allowing (and perhaps requiring!) these football shirts to be worn the Football Associations are subtly condoning and promoting McDonald’s as a normal and positive element of the sports arena.

Through the McDonald’s FA Charter Standard kit scheme, young children are exposed to McDonald’s branding. Clubs that live up to the FA’s safeguarding policy are rewarded with free kits which expose children to the McDonald’s. Moreover, with the FA’s blessing, McDonald’s is bestowed legitimacy and authority on safeguarding children and harm minimisation. The irony is troubling.  When a company (such as McDonald’s) is banned from advertising their products to children on tv, this should be sufficient evidence to consider them as unfit to sponsor a supposedly health-enhancing sport. 

Policy Issues

The UK government’s current approach to legislation on youth sport sponsorship is clearly very lax. The Government’s current “Sporting Future” policy is full of praise for “voluntary agreements”:

“Sponsorship is an area where a number of sports, and individual clubs, have adopted a responsible approach, for example around sponsorship by companies marketing alcohol or high fat sugar and salt (HFSS) foods. We will continue to discuss with sports the scope for voluntary agreements in this area. The government’s Childhood Obesity Strategy, due to be published in early 2016, is also likely to contain measures relating to HFSS foods.”

While there is a UK law banning junk food advertising targeted at children, the loophole whereby sports organisations can receive funding from HFSS companies to promote their organisations to children should be closed. If it is not legislated against, or if national governing bodies do not end these practices themselves, they will be increasingly implicated in the poor health of the nation.

Jill McDonald, the McDonald’s chief executive wrote that “Ten years ago, we took the decision to invest the majority of our UK sponsorship funds into football and crucially into the grassroots of the game.” She also wrote that she is “immensely proud of what our partnerships with each of the Football Associations has achieved”, However, I am concerned about what is not measured and displayed on the website. These questions should surely form any future evaluation of McDonald’s partnerships with youth sport.

1. Exactly why did McDonald’s choose to brand the shirts they “donated”?
2. How many cumulative minutes have children been exposed to McDonald’s branding at training sessions?
3. How were ideas about health and nutrition dealt with at these sessions?

McDonald’s brand football kits. youtube.com/user/HeresToWhatMatters

The UK Government will soon publish its new Obesity Policy. I suspect the government will not legislate against food companies invading childhood sport spaces with their branding. However, with the disastrous effects of childhood obesity, either McDonald’s or the various Football Associations need to end this insidious practice. These branded shirts are advertising. It is time to remove them from circulation.

Joe Piggin


A response to an editorial in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health

We were very disappointed to read the editorial in the recent issue of the Journal of Physical Activity and Health, written by the journal’s Editor-in-chief. The editorial is entitled “Corporate-Sponsored Obesity Research: Is Sugar Really Coating the Truth?”.

The editor, Prof DiPietro, criticises a NY Times article which itself criticised the Global Energy Balance Network. In our view, her editorial contains an unfortunate mixture of hyperbole, poor logic and short-sightedness. We contend that the arguments presented by DiPietro do little to enhance readers’ understanding of the political and economic forces that are involved when corporations sponsor physical activity research and promote physical activity to populations. Here are our main concerns, underneath extracts from DiPietro’s editorial:


DiPietro: “The [Times] article, titled “Coca-Cola Funds Scientists Who Shift Blame for Obesity Away from Bad Diets,” goes out of its way to discredit the GEBN due to its funding source” (p. 745, 2015).

Our Response: The article does not “go out of its way to discredit the GEBN”. It provides a variety of evidence and sources to highlight significant issues with the GEBN. This is investigative journalism. The journalist has quoted the GEBN and people affiliated to it; so for want of a better description, it is actually a “balanced” article.

There have been major ramifications as a result of the Times article being published. For example Steven Blair asked that his “video addressing energy balance be taken down from the GEBN website” … and wrote “My dismissal of diet as a cause of obesity did a disservice to [top nutrition experts’] work” (Blair, 2015). Also, Coca Cola has been pressured into being more transparent with regard to their sponsorship of research and promotion of PA and health.

DiPietro’s accusation actually impugns the integrity of those involved in the Times article, for which an apology might be appropriate.


DiPietro: “The science leading to these [energy flux] conclusions was not funded by Coca-Cola or any other industry and it proposes that weight regulation is best achieved at levels of high energy expenditure plus matching energy intake and low energy storage. There are numerous scientists around the world who support this claim that are also not funded by the food or beverage industry. Sadly, this message was distorted rather remarkably in the Times article, which indicated that the GEBN feels that “diet is not important.” (p. 745, 2015).

Our Response: Given Steven Blair’s initial comments in the now-retracted video, and his subsequent statement about the disservice he had done, it is clear that Blair, not the Times article, was the source of significant distortion.

DiPietro fails to identify specific instances of where the “distortions” she claims actually occur in the article. We can find a reference to the GEBN’s Dr James Hill: “On its website, the group recommends combining greater exercise and food intake because, Dr Hill said, “ ‘Eat less’ has never been a message that’s been effective. The message should be ‘Move more and eat smarter.’ ” (p. 745, 2015).

So from our interpretation, the Times article does not distort a message about “energy flux” – it actually quotes the GEBN’s spokesperson James Hill making a statement about it. Therefore we suggest DiPietro might be (hopefully unintentionally) misleading readers.

Conclusion: We challenge DiPietro to identify specific instances of where the “distortions” she claims actually occur in the article.


DiPietro: [Regarding weight loss and weight regulation] “If the Times article had solicited input from scientists not affiliated with the GEBN who were also experts in exercise and metabolism (rather than only experts in nutrition), this message might have been conveyed more accurately” (p. 745, 2015).

Our Response: The Times article actually featured responses from: Michele Simon, a public health lawyer; Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, an obesity expert at the University of Ottawa; Barry M. Popkin, a professor of global nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hil; Professor Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University; Dr. Anne McTiernan, a cancer prevention researcher at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle; Professor Kelly D. Brownell, dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University; Link to research from: Professor Aaron E. Carroll, a professor of paediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine.

To suggest that the Times article needed “experts in exercise and metabolism (rather than only experts in nutrition)” does a disservice to the Times article, which was clearly not focused on ideas about energy flux, but rather the political economy of obesity and physical activity research. DiPietro focuses on micronutrient systems, rather than macro-political systems, while the Times article clearly focuses on the latter.


DiPietro: “Another source of contention in Times article [sic] is the perceived conflict of interest as a result of taking money from an industry that may have a vested interest in the very nature of your findings. The implicit concern is that the scientific findings will waver from truth and toward benefitting that very industry” (p. 745, 2015).

Our Response: There is no “implicit concern” with conflicts of interest in corporate funded research. The Times article is explicitly concerned with conflicts of interest.

Further, there is no “perceived” conflict of interest in this case. There is an actual conflict of interest. To be clear, for a conflict of interest to occur, it is not necessary to show that a sponsor is using its position to further a particular cause. It is enough that there is a perceived conflict of interest before data is even gathered. We encourage PA researchers to act with extreme caution regarding sponsored funding. We wonder if the International Society for Physical Activity and Health might be able to provide ethical guidance to researchers who want to avoid such conflicts of interest.


DiPietro: “The implicit concern is that the scientific findings [sponsored by the GEBN and Coca Cola] will waver from truth and toward benefitting that very industry. If that were really the case, however, why do we not express equal outrage and judgment of studies funded by pharmaceutical companies? (p. 745, 2015).

Our Response: Of all of DiPietro’s comments, this is the most concerning. DiPietro’s logic is faulty in several respects. Sound reasons why there might not be “equal outrage and judgment of pharma” include:

  1. A lack of transparency by companies leading to a lack of understanding by consumers
  2. A lack of perceived influence on the part of consumers
  3. Different tactics employed by concerned consumers
  4. A lack of resources available to citizens

There are a number of other concerns about DiPietro’s comparison. The two contexts of obesity research and pharmaceutical research need to be examined on their own merits. The pharma industry, despite profit motives and examples of dubious drug effects, has far more merit than Coca Cola as a mechanism for saving lives and reducing pain and suffering. The pharma industry has a long history of contributing to health and wellbeing, which can scarcely be said of the soft drinks industry.

Most importantly, downplaying conflicts of interest in obesity/PA research because consumer engagement in another industry is addressed differently is alarmingly simplistic. We wonder, therefore, if editorials in JPAH should be peer reviewed to avoid such worrying causal leaps. We certainly hope that this faulty causal logic is not endorsed by the Journal of Physical Activity and Health in its reviewing process.

Also, actually, for many years there has been protest directed at pharmaceutical companies, much of which is synthesised at Ben Goldacre’s website, Bad Science badscience.net and in Jacky Law’s (2006) book, Big Pharma. This protest may not be as large or as apparent as the recent Coca Cola scandal, but to downplay the protest that does occur, as DiPietro does, is problematic.

The Times article which DiPietro critiques clearly points out that “A recent analysis of beverage studies, published in the journal PLOS Medicine, found that those funded by Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, the American Beverage Association and the sugar industry were five times more likely to find no link between sugary drinks and weight gain than studies whose authors reported no financial conflicts.” We are amazed, and quite frankly alarmed that this extract from the Times article does not appear to resonate with DiPietro.

DiPietro’s conclusion is particularly alarming and we offer a challenge to her overly simplistic defence of corporate funding to be substantiated. We sincerely hope that students of physical activity, sedentary behaviour and exercise science do not draw the same conclusions about corporate involvement in health promotion as DiPietro does.


DiPietro: “Although the funding disclosures were initially and unintentionally omitted from the GEBN website when it was first launched, they were added immediately when the GEBN was notified of the error.” (p. 745, 2015).

Our Response: DiPietro’s commentary here merely repeats information already in the Times article. We wonder if DiPietro is or ever has been a member of the GEBN. We seek clarity on this issue (and a response to our other challenges here).


DiPietro: “Science advances in steps and the field of physical activity and health is still learning to walk. Maybe the real issue in the Times article is that one of the funders of GEBN research is Coca-Cola, the world’s largest producer of sugary beverages and in many people’s minds the source of all that is evil.” (p. 745, 2015).

Our Response: We think this comment is poorly thought out. We contend that few people think Coca-Cola is “evil”. We believe that most would acknowledge Coca-Cola for what it is, a global corporation with a stated aim and obligation to maximise a return for its shareholders. We contend that whether it is through greenwashing its products, promoting Coke to children, being charged with tax evasion, or sponsoring physical activity research (and ISPAH conferences), Coca Cola is simply acting as it is obliged to act. Therefore, accusing Coca Cola critics of thinking Coke is “evil” is a poorly thought out argument and does not give appropriate credit to the concerted efforts of activists who are concerned by the Coca Cola Company’s behaviour.

Note: DiPietro’s repeated use of the words “real” and “really” in the editorial suggest a limited understanding of the complex mechanisms to which she herself alludes in the article.


DiPietro: “In today’s fiscal environment, it is extremely difficult for scientists to get their work funded. Hopefully, the government will soon decide that science is worth supporting again, and researchers will no longer need to turn to corporations with fat wallets for the funding of their ideas. Until that time, we must judge the quality of the science instead of baselessly impugning the reputations of the scientists.” (p. 745, 2015).

Our Response: If we conclude that the government implied by the Editor-in-chief is the USA government, then this is a particularly US-centric approach to editorial writing. It is unworthy of a journal that is claimed to be the “official journal of the International Society for Physical Activity and Health”. We encourage DiPietro to clarify which government she means.

At the same time, we also seek clarity on her suggestion that “science” is not currently being supported. This claim is vague.

Lastly, given the significant limitations of the editorial, we hope that DiPietro’s claim of scientists having their reputations “baselessly impugned” will be retracted in the same way that the founding editor of the JPAH (Steven Blair) retracted his video.

We welcome a response from Loretta DiPietro.

Dr Joe Piggin, with guest contributor Prof Alan Bairner

POSTSCRIPT – 2 December 2015. In an email to Prof. DiPietro, I asked:

1) Do recent media reports this week [showing internal Coke emails with Prof James Hill] lead you towards a different conclusion about Coca Cola’s involvement with the GEBN and the GEBN’s involvement with Coca Cola[?]

2) Would you consider writing a new editorial with these recent events in mind?

3)  Would you be willing to consider a short commentary for your journal on this topic? I have recently published about corporate lobbying in physical activity (see J Piggin 2014), and I would be willing to write a piece for your Journal. Please let me know.

I appreciated the response. I have reproduced the email below in its entirety:


No thank you.


Active and Inactive People in Policy

Health policies are often thought of as text-heavy documents combining aspirational rhetoric with references to “stakeholders”, “step changes”, “targets” and “outcomes”. Of course, it is through words and numbers that resources and budgets are decided. However, imagery plays an important (subtle) role in shaping how policy problems and solutions are defined in the first place. I offer a few examples of how imagery in physical activity policy documents can powerfully (but subtly) affect how readers of policy understand an issue.

Healthy Weight Health Lives, UK Department of Health 2008

This was a major “anti-obesity” policy in the UK, written by the Cross-Department Obesity Unit, Department of Health and Children School and Families.

Cover Page of Health Weight, Healthy Lives, UK Government, 2008.

The front cover connotes leisure, pleasure, 2.0 children, freedom, fashion, and a local council with immaculate greenkeeping. A slim, active life is a good life. Now, compare that to how “THE CHALLENGE” is visualised (p. xvi).

Image from Health Weight, Healthy Lives, p. xvi.

This image (subtly) tells UK policy readers many things. We are encouraged to look at the anonymous bodies with disgust, and to judge their ill fitting clothes, their gorging, their loitering. Why are these women not frolicking on a grassy field? Rather than judging these people, we should ask questions about the process of image production.

Q: How could “THE CHALLENGE” be framed differntly? Is it obesity? Or is it economic poverty?

Q: Why are we looking at these bodies without faces? One might argue removing the heads is conscientiousness, ensuring the anonymity of those in the photo. However, there is another reason. Deborah Thomson refers to this practice as spectacular decapitation – a powerful shaming practice. It encourages the viewer to assimilate all the surrounding signifiers (the clothes, the gorging) with the shape of the bodies to make a judgment about those bodies.

Q: Does it matter that this image is not from the UK? Tracing the photo credit reveals the image is actually from the USA. The photo is of “Overweight New Yorkers eating ice cream on West Fordham Road at Grand Avenue in the Bronx, NY on Tuesday, August 12, 2003.”

Q: More importantly, was permission sought and received from the three women involved? I suspect permission was not sought. The photo, like many others on the site, is clearly taken in a public place. If permission was not gained, does this make it ethical?

Of course, these images are only two of many in the document, but it should encourage us to consider how people are presented in official policy.

Joe Piggin

For more see,

Piggin, J. & Lee, J. (2011) ‘Don’t mention obesity’: Contradictions and tensions in the UK Change4Life health promotion campaign. Journal of Health Psychology, 16, 1151-1164.