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Supplement use is the new eating disorder for men

Girls may just wanna have fun, but dudes just wanna get jacked. Swoll. Ripped. Shredded. Getting there requires lifting lots of heavy weight, naturally, but in an increasingly image-driven world, some men want an edge. 20 years ago that edge may have been anabolic steroids, but today it’s supplements – and according to a new study by the American Psychological Association, the way some men use supplements veers into eating disorder territory.

“Body-conscious men who are driven by psychological factors to attain a level of physical or masculine ‘perfection’ are prone to use these supplements and drugs in a manner that is excessive and which was demonstrated in this study to be a variant of disordered eating,” said Richard Achiro, PhD, California School of Professional Psychology at Alliant International University. “As legal supplements become increasingly prevalent around the globe, it is all the more important to assess and treat the psychological causes and effects of excessive use of these drugs and supplements.”

There are countless supplements available (thanks to their classification keeping them out of the purview of the FDA), but the study focused on the more common ones which includes whey protein, creatine and L-carnitine. Protein powder is a bulking agent, thought to provide extra calories and amino acids to people putting their muscles through the wringer. Creatine, on the other hand, helps people lift more (and more often) by aiding in muscle recovery. L-carnitine is an amino acid that provides energy and aids in muscle development.

On their own these things are fine, and maybe even beneficial. But the researchers wondered if some men went beyond the standards of safe use, so 195 men aged 18-65 who said they’d used supplements in the past 30 days and worked out for vanity purposes at least twice per week. The subjects completed a survey asking about things like supplement use, body image, gender conflicts and self-esteem.

Surprisingly, plenty of men take supplement use to unhealthy extremes. 22% replaced meals with supplements that weren’t designed for that purpose. 29% reported that they were concerned about their own supplement use, and 8% said they’d been advised by their doctors to tone it down. 3% had even been hospitalized for kidney and liver problems related to supplements.

The cause appears to be multifaceted, involving body image issues and self-esteem, but also gender role conflict. With fewer characteristics defining men in modern times, some men may go to extremes in order to achieve what they believe to be a peak form of physical masculinity. For these men, the supplement industry is all too willing to step in and offer a “cure.”

“These products have become an almost ubiquitous fixture in the pantries of young men across the country and can seemingly be purchased anywhere and everywhere — from grocery stores to college book stores,” said Achiro. “The marketing efforts, which are tailored to addressing underlying insecurities associated with masculinity, position these products perfectly as a ‘solution’ by which to fill a void felt by so many men in our culture.”