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Updated 31 May 2016

Obsession with body-building supplements can be a sign of bigorexia

Overusing sports nutrition supplements could be a sign of bigorexia - an eating disorder that involves distorted body image and an obession with gaining muscle.

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Low-self esteem, poor body image and a perception of not meeting the modern ideal of masculinity are driving more men to consume over-the-counter body-building supplements, constituting what researchers believe is an emerging eating disorder.

Supplements such as whey protein, creatine and L-cartinine are used to improve athletic performance and physique and are sold in grocery stores, vitamin shops and online.

The products are popular among gym members to increase energy and build lean tissue mass. But researchers at Alliant International University in Los Angeles in the USA said overuse is increasing and dangerous.

"Men are using the supplements in a way that is risky both to their physical health and their health in terms of relationships and their own emotional wellbeing," said Richard Achiro, of the California School of Professional Psychology at the university.

"It is an expression, or variance, of eating disorder behaviour in these men."

Unlike anorexia or bulimia in women, which result from a desire to be thin, men are aspiring for a physique that is both lean and muscular, and are using supplements to achieve it.

Read: Bigorexia: the male quest for the body beautiful 

Achiro said overuse of the products, which are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration nor the South African Medical Research Council, can cause diarrhea, kidney disease and renal failure.

"Taken together low self-esteem and gender role conflict, which is an underlying sense of insecurity about one's masculinity, contribute more to the overuse of these products than body dissatisfaction alone," he explained.

Achiro, who presented his research at the American Psychological Association convention in Toronto, found in a study of nearly 200 men who took supplements in the past month that 29 percent expressed concern about using them.

Eight percent admitted their doctors told them to cut back or stop and 40 percent said their use had increased over time.

ReadEating disorders: not for women only

Achiro said he and his co-author, Peter Theodore, showed statistically that the excessive use of the supplements was a form of eating disorder.

"The way in which men's bodies are being objectified by the media is catching up rapidly to what has been done to women's bodies for decades," he said.

"It makes sense to believe that as that occurs men's mental health and emotional issues are going to be expressed more and more in eating disorder behaviour."

How safe are these supplements? Health24's fitness expert comments:

These products are very popular among people trying to build muscle, and there's no doubt that they do work if used correctly. I do feel that in many cases, people use them unnecessarily, without reason, and also that they don't train to maximize the results they will get.

I think that in most cases, it's possible to achieve results without their use, and so my general opinion is that they are only really a good idea (and probably necessary) in those people who are trying to build huge muscle, and have reached a near-maximum using diet and training alone.

So, the first thing that I would caution against is the need for these products, and would suggest that rather than wasting money right away, you first exhaust your other options.

In terms of risks, it depends a lot on what it is you take. All the major brands (USA, EAS etc) have various products, all which claim to either build muscle, or reduce fat, and some have more side effects than others.

The one that I would be most confident suggesting is the protein supplements (usually whey protein), because these are probably least risky - protein is found in all diets, and so unless you are taking mega-doses, you don't have too much risk.

There are other substances which may contain substances like human growth hormone (hGH), insulin-like growth factor (IGF) , which should be banned, but unfortunately are often still available.

Read: Breaking down the hGH hype

These products and any others which might contain steroids should be avoided because they have many side effects. There's also a risk of contamination with these products and so that's why if you do buy, make sure you buy a reputable brand, don't go for the cheap option, because there's more chance of contamination.

Lastly, the training is the most important thing, not the supplements. You can take a dozen supplements, but without training, you will only get fatter, not more muscular.

Once you stop taking the supplements, it's essential that you don't stop the training, because that's how you suddenly pick up weight again.

So, as long as you keep training, eating really well, and don't make radical changes to any of them, then you should see progress.  

There is a place for supplements in training, but these would fall under the category of nutritional supplements and I would suggest anyone speak to a dietitian regarding taking these as a supplement to your diet.

Read more:

Boys are at risk for eating disorder

Men with eating disorders underdiagnosed

Man: a better looking you

Image: man obsessed with his body, Shutterstock

 
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