Teens are increasingly turning to supplements to enhance their appearance, and the media is fueling an unattainable standard for physical perfection, according to a new study.
The report was published in the August issue of Pediatrics, out Monday (August 1). It's the largest study yet to explore the use of hormones and supplements, body image and media influence on adolescents ages 12 to 18.
Out of more than 10,000 young people surveyed, 8 percent of girls and 12 percent of boys said they used supplements in the past year to improve their appearance, muscle mass or strength, with nearly 5 percents of boys and 2 percent of girls admitting to using such products on a daily basis.
Adolescent users appear to be heavily influenced by the media, the study also shows.
Girls who emulate the physique of women in movies, magazines or on TV are more than twice as likely to use supplements at least weekly to increase muscle mass or definition. Of those girls, 21 percent had used at least one supplement in the past year.
Boys wanting to bulk up were three times as likely to use supplements at least weekly. Boys who read men's, fashion or health magazines were more than twice as likely to use supplements at least weekly, and 29 percent of those had used at least one product in the last year.
"More and more media images show people with sculpted physiques. It used to be just scantily clad women, but now you see more images of men with physiques that are impossible for most people to attain," said Dr. Alison Field, a Harvard Medical School professor of pediatrics and lead researcher on the study. "Girls' concerns about their bodies are well known, but I don't think it's on a parent's radar screen that their sons might have body
Nearly 30 percent of both sexes said they thought frequently about wanting more toned or defined muscles, and the most commonly used products were protein powders and shakes. Weight lifting and playing football were linked to increased use of supplements, particularly creatine — a supplement which is believed to help athletes boost their performance — amino acids, growth hormones and anabolic steroids.
Field says the problem is facilitated by easy access to these supplements (see "Teen Prescription-Drug Abuse Has Tripled, Study Finds"). "The Internet is full of sites where these substances can be purchased, and many are advertised in popular health and fitness magazines with covers like 'Great Abs In Five Minutes A Day,' " she said.
Protein powders are safe, Field notes, but steroids have serious side effects, and other products may not be as risk-free as many assume. Anabolic steroids have been linked to testicular atrophy and male impotence, liver and kidney damage, an increased risk for heart disease, and uncontrollable aggression, nicknamed " 'roid rage."
"Most of us in adolescent medicine think it's [just] best to stay away from these products altogether," Field said.