When Bulking Up Goes Too Far

Excessive workout supplement use may signal emerging eating disorder in men

Many men who hit the gym regularly may be falling prey to what some consider an emerging eating disorder.

A new study found that many men are turning to legal, over-the-counter bodybuilding supplements — such as protein powders and bars, creatine and glutamine — in an effort to achieve the perfect body.

This obsession with staying lean and muscular may go so far, in fact, that it could be classified as an eating disorder.

"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 lead study author Richard Achiro, PhD, a professor of psychology at Alliant International University in Los Angeles, in a press release. "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."

Dr. Achiro and team looked at 195 adult men who had taken appearance-enhancing or performance-enhancing supplements within the past 30 days and who reported working out at least two times per week.

Using an online survey, these men answered questions about supplement use, self-esteem, eating habits and gender role conflicts.

Researchers found that 40 percent of these men reported an increased use of supplements over time, and 22 percent had replaced meals with supplements not intended for use as meal replacements.

Most alarming, Dr. Achiro said, was that 29 percent of these men said they were concerned about their own supplement use.

"The fact that these men are concerned about overuse but cannot bring themselves to stop or cut back on legal workout supplementation indicates that deeper, underlying psychological issues are at play in determining these men's ongoing use," Dr. Achiro told dailyRx News.

A small portion (8 percent) said their doctors had advised them to cut back or stop using supplements. Three percent said they had already been hospitalized for kidney or liver problems related to supplement use.

"There is a fair amount of research looking at eating disorders in men," Dr. Achiro said. "However, that research has largely looked at eating disorders as they are conventionally defined (i.e., anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa). The problem here is that, although some men do suffer from these conventional eating disorders, other men are expressing their eating disorders in a different manner because the ideal masculine physique ... is very different for men than it is for women."

Dr. Achiro concluded by calling for more awareness of male eating disorders and the potential dangers of the availability of legal supplements.

This study was presented at the American Psychological Association’s annual convention. Research presented at conferences may not have been peer-reviewed.

The authors disclosed no funding sources or conflicts of interest.