Women striving for the “perfect” body have struggled with eating disorders for years, but researchers report that a new sort of eating disorder is emerging among men.
Fitness buffs who are obsessed with bodybuilding, and the bulging biceps and “six-pack” abs it produces, are overusing supplements to the point that the practice might qualify as a new kind of eating disorder, the researchers said.
A survey found that more than 40 percent of these men indicated that their use of supplements such as whey protein, protein bars, creatine and glutamine had increased over time, said study author Richard Achiro, a Los Angeles psychotherapist.
Further, one of every five men said they replaced regular meals with dietary supplements that are not intended to be meal replacements.
On the more extreme end, 8 percent of the men said their physician told them to cut back or stop using supplements due to an actual or potential effect on their health, and 3 percent had been hospitalized for kidney or liver problems related to the use of these supplements.
The researchers presented their findings Thursday at the American Psychological Association’s annual meeting in Toronto. Research presented at meetings should be viewed as preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.
“Quite a few men are indeed using these supplements in a way that can adversely affect their physical health,” Achiro said. “Most alarming is that 30 percent of those men have said their own use of these supplements has concerned them.”
Responses to questions from an eating disorder questionnaire indicated that the men are using these supplements for many of the same reasons women turn to bulimia or anorexia, Achiro said.
The male standard of beauty emphasizes big muscles and a lean frame, so it stands to reason that men obsessed with their body image would turn to supplements and exercise rather than fall into an eating disorder that would cause the body to waste away, Achiro said.
“Basically, men have different standards and ideals than women when it comes to their bodies, and it makes sense that an eating disorder would be expressed differently in men than in women,” he said.
However, other psychological issues also appeared to be at play. Self-esteem issues and the desire to live up to society’s definition of masculinity contributed more to overuse of supplements than did body dissatisfaction, Achiro said.
“It demonstrates that, yes, the body is an important component, but there’s a way we’re using these supplements to compensate for something much deeper,” he said.
For the study, Achiro and his co-author, Peter Theodore, recruited 195 men between the ages of 18 and 65 who had consumed legal appearance- or performance-enhancing supplements during the previous 30 days. Participants also had stated that they work out for fitness or appearance-related reasons a minimum of two times a week.
The men were asked to complete an online survey about a variety of subjects, including supplement use, self-esteem, body image, eating habits and gender role conflicts.
Although these supplements are legal and sold over-the-counter, overusing them or substituting them for food can cause serious health problems.
Men can wind up suffering from dehydration, kidney problems and diarrhea by eating too much protein from whey powder or bars or taking too much creatine, an organic acid that supplies energy to muscle, said Jim White, a health fitness instructor and registered dietitian based in Virginia Beach, Va.
“I think some of this can be used in a safe manner, but, as with all things, some people like to overdo it,” said White, who is a spokesman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
White recommends that his clients eat five small meals a day, and that they only use supplements like a whey protein shake or protein bar to replace one or two of those meals.
“Mostly, we push that you get all of your meals from real food,” he said. “People who overuse these supplements aren’t getting the nutrients they need from real food.”
Men who are worried about their use of these supplements should do a little soul-searching, said Stephen Franzoi, a professor emeritus of psychology at Marquette University who specializes in body esteem issues.
Men have become more self-conscious of their bodies as women have achieved financial independence and started judging men on their appearance, much as men have traditionally judged women, Franzoi said.
“As men become more aware they’re being judged as beauty objects, they are more likely to objectify their bodies,” he said. “The men who are most likely to use those supplements are those kinds of men.
“They need to pay attention to why exactly is this so important to them,” Franzoi continued. “Why are they identifying with this unrealistic masculine standard of beauty? Because that’s a losing battle. Looks go with age. You need to have a self-definition that is much more expansive than that, and much more affirming that simple physical appearance.”
Visit the U.S. National Institutes of Health for more on eating disorders.