Friday, August 1, 2014 · 6:29 p.m.
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Little Debbie is the sponsor of September's Ironman competition. At the recent sponsorship announcement, the company had these products on display. According to MyFitnessPal, one of these muffins has 190 calories, 8 grams of fat, 27 grams of carbs and 16 grams of sugar. (Photo: Staff)

I've been hearing this a lot lately: "Hey, Dr. Mitchell, have you heard who's the title sponsor for Ironman Chattanooga?"

The people that ask seem to be trying to pull their tongue off the side of their cheek and hold back the laughs regarding the recent announcement that Little Debbie is the title sponsor for Ironman Chattanooga.

Curious, before I express my concern regarding the sponsorship, I ask with a smile, "Why does it make you laugh?"

The answers usually include words such as "hypocritical," "irresponsible" and "money." 

It's no surprise that obesity is a major health concern for our nation.  

F as in Fat, a national project dedicated to the mission of ending obesity, lists some pretty sobering statistics:

—In 2012, Tennessee ranked as the 10th most obese state in the nation.

—In 2012, 31 percent of adult Tennesseans were classified as obese (and that's not including those classified as "overweight.")

—In 2011, more than 14 percent of 2- to 4-year-olds from low-income families were obese, and more than 21 percent of 10- to 17-year-olds were classified as obese, which ranked Tennessee as the fifth most obese state regarding this age category.

As a local primary care and sports medicine physician, I experience on a daily basis how obesity and all the comorbid conditions related to it affect people’s lives.

It is heart-wrenching to bear witness to the pain and struggle that people bring forward during these oftentimes emotional medical visits.

"Dr. Mitchell, that’s why I’ve come to you. You’ve been here and you know what this is like." 

After having lost nearly 100 pounds through healthy diet and exercise, as well as devoting a large percentage of my practice and educational training to nutrition and exercise and successfully completing five Ironman triathlons, I feel comfortable saying I can offer some words of advice to people who struggle with conquering obesity.

So when I found out that Little Debbie was named the title sponsor for Ironman Chattanooga, I was disappointed. 

I think the title sponsorship in its current form is socially irresponsible. I cringe when I walk into hospital cafeterias and see nothing but junk food outlets. I even pointed out to my former employer when they placed a soda vending machine in the waiting area of the clinic that it was not a positive message to patients.

Our nation and our state are struggling with obesity and all of its comorbid health conditions, such as heart disease, and Ironman Chattanooga is willing to accept title sponsorship from a junk food product line? 

I further offer that the target of Little Debbie is not the athletes.

It’s interesting that all comments I have seen from athletes regarding consumption of junk food (regardless of their opinion about the sponsorship) always say that "it should only be consumed in moderation," which underscores the fact that it is not regarded as a healthy nutritional source to consume.

I think the intended target for the title sponsorship is the people watching the athletes racing.

Ironman athletes (as well as other athletes) are generally regarded as "healthy" and by virtue of this health admiration become role models, whether they like it or not.

Having spectators see junk food items like Little Debbie plastered all over the race course and attaching the product line to a highly recognized athletic event like Ironman sends an unhealthy message to spectators and attempts to legitimize junk food as being acceptable and even necessary in a healthy lifestyle.

Many people have stepped forward supporting McKee Foods, saying that the company supports the community and athletes through gifts and donations.

They also report that McKee Foods provides jobs for the community and treats their employees well. I’m not contesting that they don’t do these things. And I praise them for doing so if these actions are rooted in genuine altruism.

There is another side to this argument that is also worthy of consideration. Many people have voiced concern that McKee is violating its own guiding principles listed on their website, which proclaim that they "recognize the value and contribution of each individual and demonstrate concern for the health, safety and well-being of employees and their families."

Very admirable, but how does junk food benefit someone in a healthy way? 

People have also said that the gifts of support to the community are ways to buy people off and lessen McKee’s responsibility for contributing to unhealthy lifestyles and the burden of disease that they generate.

This conflict of interest and junk food companies buying off community support is an issue that is generating so much attention that a recent article in The New York Times, titled "Parasites, Killing Off Their Hosts," is stirring up national debate.

I would also like to personally point out that a junk food company sponsoring community and health-related events is a conflict of interest.

So is there any constructive outcome for this title sponsorship?  Perhaps.

Would it be unreasonable to ask McKee Foods and Ironman to consider McKee Foods as the title sponsor yet attempt to put healthier fuel sources out on the race course? 

Having McKee Foods listed pays respect to McKee for all the good things they do while removing the stigma of a junk food label being attached to an athletic event that spectators often revere as a sign of health.  

It is also a step forward in helping fight obesity.

Dr. Danielle Mitchell is CEO and founding physician of the Chattanooga Sports Institute and Center for Health. She is a double board-certified primary care and sports medicine physician. She's a 100-pound weight loss achiever and a five-time Ironman finisher. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.

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