That guy next to you at the gym may have a totally new, male eating disorder

When it comes to workout supplements, some men are getting carried a-whey.
When it comes to workout supplements, some men are getting carried a-whey.
Image: AP Photo/Kike Calvo
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Maybe this is what true gender equality looks like.

Women’s battles with body image and eating disorders are well documented. Men aren’t immune to such issues either—and now some are self medicating with workout supplements, leading one psychotherapist to identify what he sees as an emerging eating disorder.

In a presentation at the American Psychological Association’s annual meeting in Toronto earlier this month, Dr. Richard Achiro, a Los Angeles psychotherapist, introduced his (as yet unpublished) research on men’s usage of legal workout supplements like whey protein, protein bars, and creatine, the US National Library of Medicine reported. In a survey of 195 men between the ages of 18 and 65, all of whom attend the gym at least twice each week and had consumed a workout supplement within 30 days of the survey, Achiro found that one in five had replaced a regular meal with a supplement that was not designated as a meal replacement; 8% had been told by physicians to consume less or no supplements at all because of actual or possible health impacts; and 3% had been hospitalized for supplement-related kidney or liver problems. Twenty-nine percent said they were worried about their supplement use.

Achiro attributes the emerging eating disorder to the increasing objectification of men’s bodies in the media. ”Men are internalizing the increasingly narrow [standard] of what it is to be an attractive man in our culture,” Achiro told Quartz, citing “the Zac Efrons [and] the Ryan Reynolds” as examples of the “increasingly ubiquitous hard-abbed men.” While women’s eating disorders usually drive them to lose weight, men are seeking a lean, muscular body type. The Arnold Schwarzenegger/bodybuilder look is out, the naturally strong, lean, I-woke-up-like-this look is in.

Body dissatisfaction was the top predictor of overuse of workout supplements, but Achiro says his research also found that other issues were at play. Low self-esteem and what Achiro describes as an “underlying insecurity with one’s own sense of masculinity” can manifest in overuse of supplements, Achiro says. “This is an interesting and important finding because it points to the fact that using these supplements excessively is about more than the body.”

Achiro points out that there is nothing inherently damaging about supplements—the problems arise when they are used excessively. The biggest limitation on his findings, Achiro says, is the exploratory, ad-hoc nature of the model that was used, and he thinks that future work should be carried out with the final model and a new sample of men.

In the meantime, Zac Efron might want to consider putting a shirt on. For the sake of his fellow men.