Peek in the pantry of anyone who works out a few times a week — whether he or she is a CrossFitter, runner, or casual gymgoer — and you’ll most likely see at least some sort of legal supplement such as whey protein or creatine. Overall, more than half of U.S. adults take one or more supplements, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Although many people take these products responsibly, excessive use of workout supplements may be an emerging problem — and signal an emerging eating disorder, says new research presented today (Aug. 6) at the American Psychological Association’s annual convention.
The study surveyed 195 active men who had taken at least one legal fitness supplement, such as whey protein, in the past month. The results were surprising: Almost 30 percent of the participants said they were concerned about their supplement use, and 8 percent said their doctor had told them to stop or cut back on supplements.
“Even though these men clearly know, as they indicated in the study, that their supplement use is becoming extreme or a concern to them, they continue to use the supplements, and in many cases have increased their use of the supplements,” study author Richard Achiro, PhD, tells Yahoo Health. “So that to me speaks to underlying psychological issues that are driving a destructive behavior.”
The survey also asked men about their body image, self-esteem, and other psychological factors. Not surprisingly, body dissatisfaction was the biggest single factor contributing to excessive supplement use. “But what I found more interesting is that taken together, low self-esteem and gender role conflict — which is a sort of underlying insecurity with one’s own masculinity — contributed more than body dissatisfaction alone to overuse of these products,” Achiro says.
Achiro is careful to point out that he’s not against legal workout supplements and has used them himself. Rather, his research shows that excessive use of workout supplements may signal underlying psychological problems. “I think it speaks to the fact that this is a much deeper issue that’s getting expressed in a kind of superficial way,” he says.
How Safe Are Supplements, Really?
For the vast majority of people, legal fitness supplements, when taken as directed, are completely safe, says weight-loss and obesity specialist Charles Seltzer, MD. “There are no legal supplements out there that I can think of that are inherently dangerous to anybody without a pre-existing condition,” he tells Yahoo Health. “For me, it’s more of a money issue. Most of the stuff is not dangerous, but it’s ineffective.”
When taken in excess, certain workout supplements can be harmful for people with specific health conditions, Seltzer adds. Very high doses of caffeine, which is used to boost fitness performance, can be dangerous for people with high blood pressure, kidney disease, microvascular disease, and conditions that make having high blood pressure more dangerous. High-protein diets can be problematic for people with liver or kidney disease.