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Is the Over-Use of Sports Supplements a New Eating Disorder?

10/08/2015 10:19 BST | Updated 09/08/2016 10:59 BST

Interesting claims were made at the American Psychological Association's annual convention in Toronto last week, which found more and more men are using and misusing legal, over-the-counter supplements, leading to the practice's potential qualification as an emerging eating disorder.

The study, which was carried out by Dr Richard Achiro and Dr Peter Theodore, surveyed 195 adult men who had taken legal supplements, including whey protein and creatine. The respondents were tasked with answering questions on a wide array of topics, including their self-esteem, eating habits, and level of supplement use.

In their findings they found that 40 per cent of the men had increased their intake of the supplements over time, while 22 per cent indicated that they regularly replaced meals with supplements that are not supposed to be used as a substitute. 29 per cent admitted to being worried by their supplement intake, while a further 8 per cent said they had been advised to cut back by a GP or health professional.

While it's clearly a growing concern it's important to make clear that being 'hooked' on supplements, it is not a medically-recognised eating disorder according to the DSM-V. Though the researchers argue the data next to the diagnostic indicators used for judging eating disorders as a strong correlation.

Abusing whey protein and the like can lead to other health problems such as body dysmorphic disorder, also known as muscle dysmorphia, and related body image disorders.

"Body dysmorphic disorder used to be referred to as reverse anorexia," Leigh Cohn, a spokesman for the National Eating Disorder Association, says.

"Someone with anorexia will feel they need to continue to get thinner and lose weight. With bodybuilders, they act in the same kind of manner. They acknowledge that they're ripped, but are obsessed with certain body parts that they find inadequate. This drive for muscularity preoccupies them. Supplements serve them the same way diet products serve someone with an eating disorder."

Most worrying is the physical impact of the use and overuse of supplements including digestive issues and organ damage. Dr Archio says that we ought to become more 'attune' to the pressures that men will take risks for to achieve an Adonis physique.

"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, Dr Archio explained.

"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.

"What are these men compensating for? Feelings of impotence in relationships, work life or both? It's an underlying behavior men know is problematic, but are unable to change because so few of us men are open to addressing our emotional worlds and sense of inadequacy."

No-one ought to be assumed to have an eating disorder or have body image issues simply because they use sports supplements. It's no secret I work out five to six days a week to strength train. I have tried supplements on and off over the years. I have also had an eating disorder a decade ago. One thing I am sure on is that supplements are not a substitute for good old fashioned food.

The key issue here is the replacement and over-reliance of the supplements because they are just that after-all, a supplement. Health never ought to be scarified over vanity and is not helped by the gym culture's fixed idea on the body perfect male being set in stone, reducing men to feel they have to cut the corners and take short-cuts in order to achieve their goals. Our bodies do not survive on just protein alone and mass consumption of it will do more harm than good, actually!

An hour maximum spent exercising in the gym is the general recommendation for anyone wanting to get fit and healthy. Do not, however, conflate the benefits of 'honest' exercise with the obsession to add muscle bulk without proper consideration of a well-balanced diet and nutrition.

Ultimately, the danger lies in the loss of control in the vulnerable and impressionable but especially younger men....

For more information and support please go to the Men Get Eating Disorders Too website or call the Beat helpline