When it comes to the topic of professional athletes being role models, what comes to mind? Inspiring athleticism in young fans? Being outstanding members of the community? How about healthy eating habits?

If you’ve seen some of the TV commercials where pro athletes are promoting various items, it may appear the athletes are promoting something other than healthy eating.

Researchers at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University recently conducted a study on pro athletes and the endorsements they are paid to promote. The study showed that food and drink brands are the second biggest endorsement category for professional athletes. (#1 is sporting goods.)

According to HuffingtonPost.com, when it comes to specific foods and drinks, researchers found that sports drinks made up the biggest category for endorsements, followed by soft drinks and fast food.

HuffingtonPost.com reports the study is based on analysis of 100 professional athletes who were ranked on the 2010 Power 100 report from BusinessWeek. The researchers looked at what products athletes endorsed and grouped them into categories.

Of all the food and drink brands endorsed by the professional athletes, 79 percent were considered "energy-dense and nutrient-poor," and 93 percent got 100 percent of their calories from added sugars.

An interesting side note – the study lists the top three (3) pro athletes when it comes to plugging munchies. Number 1 is NBA player LeBron James of the Miami Heat, who reportedly earns $42 million per year endorsing McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and other products.

Number 2 on the list NFL quarterback Peyton Manning of the Denver Broncos. Manning reportedly has built an endorsement empire that has included Papa John’s pizza and Oreo cookies. NBC News quotes a Forbes report that Manning owns 21 Papa John’s stores in the Denver area.

At number 3 on the researchers’ list, tennis star Serena Williams has done ads for McDonald’s and Oreo cookies.

The study reports that pro athletes have put their names behind 44 different food or beverage brands during 2010. Many of the food and beverage sales campaigns are aimed at young consumers.

HuffingtonPost.com quoted Yale researcher Marie Bragg as saying: "The promotion of energy-dense, nutrient-poor products by some of the world’s most physically fit and well-known athletes is an ironic combination that sends mixed messages about diet and health."

NBC News also quoted Bragg, saying: "Our ultimate hope would be that athletes reject the unhealthy endorsements or, at the very least, promote healthy foods. These athletes have an opportunity to work with parents. Instead, they're promoting really unhealthy foods."