Boys, six packs, and supplements: What parents need to know.

BY Zali Yager

Current research is now showing that boys are generally just as dissatisfied with their bodies and appearance as girls are- they just show it differently, and do different things as a result.

Around 60% to 80% of adolescent boys report being unhappy with the way that they look. Half of them want to be larger (or more muscular) and half wanting to be thinner (leaner, lose weight).

This body dissatisfaction is linked to a number of consequences for boys’ mental and physical health. There is very compelling evidence that body dissatisfaction predicts, and is related to depression and anxiety, as well as eating disorders, use of muscle building supplements, misuse of drugs and alcohol, smoking and absences from school. The way we think we look is tied very closely to our perception of our worth, value, and success. It’s not just a girl thing, and it’s not just a shallow frivolous thing.

Six Packs and Soccer

In talking to parents of young, pre-teen boys, so many of them reported that their boys were wanting ‘six packs’. All of a sudden I was hearing the same thing from so many parents of 9-11 year old boys, from all over the world. Parents in Sweden, the UK, the US, and Australia- all talking about their boys wanting six packs. The only common theme was that most of the boys played soccer- my researcher senses were tingling- why are all of these boys suddenly talking about this?And then I saw posts on social media about the fact that Christiano Ronaldo- arguably one of the world’s most famous soccer players, and a huge idol for most soccer-playing young boys was spruiking the ‘six pad’ a machine that stimulates muscles electronically in order for you to get a six pack.
Suddenly it all makes sense. Boys have always looked up to idols- particularly professional athletes- but I hadn’t heard them talking about six packs, and expressing such a specific desire for muscularity before. Research with young boys has found that they do commonly refer to, and talk about the ‘six pack’ in the context of the ‘ideal’ male body, and that muscularity is synonymous with strength and masculinity for young boys. In his book, Boy’s Bodies, lead research Professor Murray drummond presents this work, gathered through focus groups with boys from the age of 5 to 10 in Australia. Part of the research involved boys drawing what they thought the ‘ideal man’ looked like, and some of these pictures are included on the front cover of the book.
So if your boys are talking about big muscles and six-packs, it’s worth asking some questions about what they think this means. What does it take to get a six pack? How much work and time? What does it mean to be muscular? Does that tell us anything about what a person can do? How healthy they are? Whether they are a good person or not? Just get curious and open up the conversation.

Muscle Building Supplements

Just as young girls who are dissatisfied with their bodies generally start experimenting with dieting, boys generally start making changes to what they eat too. Most begin by increasing the amount of protein in their diet, and are then more likely to use muscle building supplements. These supplements- like protein powders, are a huge multimillion dollar industry. Supplement companies use intensive marketing to promise the gain of lean muscle mass with less effort, and make bold claims about their effectiveness. Muscle building supplements are easily purchased online, from gyms, or specialty supplement stores, and include things like protein powder, pre-workout supplements, mass gainer, and testosterone boosters. You might think that ‘doping in sport’ is just something that elite athletes do, but research shows that it is adolescent boys in more recreational-level sports who use these substances, as there are no legal frameworks prohibiting use for non-athletes.

Muscle building supplements are widely available and have been widely adopted by adolescent boys. In our research on boys aged 14-16 in all boys’ schools in Australia, we found that 49.8% had used protein powder, 8.4% used creatine, and 62% intended to use protein powders in the future. Boys who are engaged in a higher number of sports, and boys who are engaged in weight lifting, were more likely to be using muscle building supplements.

In the year 2000, my colleague and I asked adolescent boys what (if anything), they were trying to do to in order to gain weight. Boys indicated that they were eating more meat, or drinking more milk- a few said they were using protein shakes, but the majority listed food-related mechanisms for weight gain. In 2012, we repeated the same question, and we were surprised to find that boys were now listing the brand name, or the category of supplements that they were using to gain weight. Over that time, the level of body dissatisfaction hadn’t changed that much, but what boys were doing to try to gain muscle had changed dramatically. I wonder what the responses would be now…

Why are muscle building supplements a problem?

Some supplements are fairly safe to use, like products that are mostly milk powder. These are mostly ok if used according to the instructions -but many adolescent boys don’t follow the instructions! However there are a whole range of substances that come under the ‘muscle building supplements’ area- and the three main reasons why the use of supplements are problematic are the 1) The lack of regulation, 2) potential side effects, and 3) the potential for the Gateway Effect.

One of the dangers of supplements comes from their lack of regulation; they fall into a grey area within the regulatory bodies. Because they are consumed like a food in powder or shake form, they are classified as a food, rather than as drugs, and they therefore fall under the lightest self-regulated category. No one is checking that the supplements are safe, and no one is confirming that they are effective. This means that some supplements can contain dangerous substances such as stimulants, synthetic forms of testosterone, or dangerous amounts of otherwise safe substances. It is hard to know the exact proportion of supplements that are spiked- intentionally or not- with these ingredients, but as an example, one study found that 52% of the brands of one particular herbal supplement were found to contain a stimulant substance that was not related to the herbal ingredient, and had never been tested on humans.

There are also multiple reports of side effects from weight loss and muscle building supplement use, including heart attacks, liver failure, and sudden death, particularly among consumers who are otherwise safe and healthy. As ingredient lists may not be accurate, as there is very little regulation, and as there is no testing done with adolescent bodies, we really don’t know what main effects or side effects some of these substances will have on boys’ bodies.

The other cause for concern relates to the fact that seemingly benign supplements can lead adolescents to want to take more and more serious substances. Termed the ‘Gateway effect’, this concept is well established for illicit drug use, and recently confirmed for muscle building supplement use. The idea is that adolescent boys might start by taking vitamins, and supermarket whey protein powders, but then as these things either do or don’t produce the effects they are after, they are more and more likely to move on to the more serious supplements such as pre-workout formulas and mass gainer products, and on to testosterone derivatives, and eventually steroids. boys either like the effect of what they are taking and want more, or they find that what they have tried isn’t as effective as they like, so they step it up a notch. The likely psychological and physical consequences of each supplement also increase along that scale. It’s something to be aware of, particularly in the early stages of boys wanting to use these substances.

My adolescent boy wants to use supplements – what should I do?

It’s important to keep open communication with adolescent boys about their desires to use muscle building supplements. Most boys gather their information about supplements from peers in gyms and weight lifting environments, or online communities of weight lifters- it would be great if parents can also open up a conversation about this to provide more balanced information about why they feel the need to use these supplements, what they are wanting to use, where they will get it from, and how they know it is safe.
My colleagues and I have just completed a trial of a school-based program for boys called Goodform, that aims to increase boys’ body image and reduce their use of supplements. We developed a ‘traffic light’ system to help parents to identify what supplements might be ok for their boys to use, and what might be more dangerous. Supplements in the green category will have ingredients that you might recognise, or that look like food. Those in the orange category, that you should be cautious about, will have ingredient lists that look more like chemicals. And supplements in the red or ‘avoid’ category will have a lot of numbers and hyphenated chemical-sounding ingredients. You can access this information here.
There are also multiple apps that can give you more detail about the safety of supplements. ASADA also has a Sport Integrity Australia mobile app – you can download this to see exactly which supplements have been independently tested for safety. Informed Sport also conducts batch testing of supplements and has an app you can use to check the brand that your boys are into.Being informed yourself, and modeling this sort of investigation around safety to boys can help them to develop skills in health literacy, reading labels, critiquing supplement advertising, and keeping themselves safe.The fact that adolescent boys develop later than girls, may be seeking muscularity to establish their masculinity, and desire increased sports performance in order to increase their self-esteem and feelings of success, means that they are in a vulnerable place in terms of feeling dissatisfied with their appearance. This can make them susceptible to the marketing of muscle building supplements. By being informed yourself, communicating with boys, and establishing social norms against supplement use, we can help them to more critically evaluate the information and messages that they are receiving, and make more informed choices about what they put into, and do with their bodies.

Meet The Author,
Zali Yager

Dr Zali Yager is the Executive Director of The Embrace Collective [TEC], a DGR-status health promotion charity on a mission to help people everywhere build better body image. In her research position as Associate Professor in the Institute for Health and Sport at Victoria University, Zali was also the Chief Investigator on the Goodform project for boys, a WADA-funded, randomised controlled trial of this 4-session school-based program.Connect with Zali via LinkedInInstagram and her website. Find out more about The Embrace Collective on Instagram. Sign up for the EK Support Squad to receive body image resources and support for young people.
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