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Emerging Male Eating Disorder Is Tied to Supplement Use

As a rule, far more women than men suffer from eating disorders, but a silent epidemic is growing among American males, according to the National Eating Disorders Association. The organization estimates that 10 million males in the U.S. will suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder at some time in their life and that about 43% of men are dissatisfied with their bodies.

A paper presented in August at the American Psychological Association’s 123rd Annual Convention underscores this trend, illustrating that more men are turning to legal, over-the-counter bodybuilding supplements as a means of achieving body perfection. The practice is so
rampant that it may qualify
as an emerging eating disorder, says Richard Achiro, PhD, the researcher who presented the paper.

“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 bookstores,” said Achiro, of the California School of Professional Psychology at Alliant International University, Los Angeles. “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.”

For the study, the researchers recruited 195 men aged 18–65 who had consumed legal appearanceor performance-enhancing supplements (e.g., whey protein, creatine, L-carnitine) in the past 30 days and had stated that they worked out for fitness- or appearance-related reasons a minimum of two times a week. Participants completed an online survey that asked about a variety of subjects, including supplement use, self-esteem, body image, eating habits and gender role conflicts.

Achiro and coauthor Peter Theodore, PhD, also at the California School of Professional Psychology, found that more than 40% of participants had increased their use of supplements over time; 22% said they replaced regular meals with dietary
supplements not intended to be
meal replacements. Most alarming, said Achiro, was that 29% said they were concerned about their own use of supplements. On the more extreme end, 8% of participants reported
that their physician had told them
to cut back or stop using supplements because of actual or potential adverse health side effects, and 3% had been hospitalized for kidney or liver problems related to the use of supplements.

These data were obtained as
part of a scale developed by Achiro and Theodore to decipher risky legal supplement use; the scale was found to correlate significantly with well-established diagnostic indicators of an eating disorder such as eating concern and restrictive eating.

“The most critical implication for these findings is to put risky/excessive legal supplement use on the map as an issue facing a significant number of men,” said Achiro.

What’s driving this risky misuse of legal workout supplements, said Achiro, appears to be a combination of factors, including body dissatisfaction, low self-esteem and gender role conflict, in which an individual perceives that he is not living up to the strict limitations of masculinity dictated by modern culture.

“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 Achiro. “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.”

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