Men aiming for a lean, muscular body often opt for supplements as a one-stop shop. But overuse of and dependence on these legal products may be a sign of deeper problems, to the point where it may qualify as an emerging eating disorder, research presented Thursday at the American Psychological Association’s annual convention suggests.

The media’s increasing objectification of men’s bodies is partially to blame for the increased use of supplements, researchers said. Their study focused on legal appearance- or performance-enhancing supplements, such as whey protein, creatine and L-cartinine, because they purport to give the user the exact body type they strive for. That body type is often perceived as balanced, muscular and low in fat— like those physiques sported by Zac Efron and Ryan Reynolds.

"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,” Richard Achiro, PhD, of the California School of Professional Psychology at Alliant International University, Los Angeles, told FoxNews.com.

The men in the study looked fit and healthy, but deterioration of the body due to supplement use may signal underlying emotional issues.

“Even if they look good on the outside, do they have excessive diarrhea?  Are their livers and kidneys starting to give out from having to detox toxins? Are they adhering to this regimented style of eating in such a way to compromise their relationships and work life?” said Achiro, who is a registered psychological assistant.

The 195 study participants were between the ages of 18 and 65, and had a mean age of 33. All of the men had consumed legal supplements in the past 30 days, and they worked out a minimum of two times a week. Researchers used an online survey to gather information on supplement use, self-esteem, body image, eating habits, and gender role conflicts.

The study found that 29 percent of men were concerned with their use of supplements, but 40 percent of men had increased their use, which researchers believe indicates underlying psychological and emotional issues preventing an individual from stopping what they know is dangerous behavior. Achiro likened it to cigarette smoking— that it’s harmful is not news to anyone and continued use indicates psychological drivers for this behavior.

Study participants were also asked about physiological changes. Three percent reported they had been hospitalized for kidney or liver problems related to supplement use and 8 percent indicated that their doctor had told them to cut back or stop out of concerns for their health.

“Like an eating disorder, this can become really rigid, a person’s need for these supplements,” Achiro said. “To have to take them at certain times during the day can really start to intrude upon one’s ability to live a life that’s otherwise fulfilling.”

Researchers’ reasoning for categorizing supplement overuse as an eating disorder is two-fold. First, supplements are often sold in the form of foods, bars or powders, that become part of a person’s dietary habits. They also found a significant positive correlation between risky use of legal supplements and subscales on the Eating Disorder Examination-Questionnaire,  a well-established diagnostic tool for establishing eating disorder behaviors.  

Most eating disorder research has focused on women, where the drive toward thinness typically manifests in food restriction and binging, or men who exhibit the same behavior. Research on supplements has focused on body builders and illicit steroid and human-growth hormone use. After noticing the ubiquity of tubs of supplements in his male friends’ kitchens, Achiro looked into the research and saw a gap.

Society and research tend to under-pathologize male populations, which is problematic because men enact self-destructive behaviors that, because they define the norm, don’t get analyzed, Achiro said.

“Because we just assume sometimes that’s what men do, collectively, it’s kind of a normal thing, and in fact they’re overusing these supplements in a way that is damaging themselves and the people around them in some cases,” he said.
               
Another danger of supplement misuse is that they are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Many companies have proprietary blends, and not all ingredients are listed.

“There have been findings over the past decade that have shown there’s been a significant amount of arsenic found in certain of these supplements,” Achiro said.

The biggest finding from their study, researchers noted, is to put risky, excessive legal supplement use on the map as an issue facing a significant number of men.

“What are these men compensating for? Feelings of impotence in relationships, work life or both?” Achiro said. “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.”