Health and Fitness Column

Harvard study says teenage body builders more like to abuse drugs

By John Taylor | Nov 05, 2013

According to a new study from Harvard, teenage boys who take steroids in hopes of improving their strength and physique are more likely to binge drink and use other drugs.
“This kind of behavior is really a type of eating disorder,” lead researcher Dr. Alison Field said in an interview with “” “Many people are just familiar with anorexia and bulimia as eating disorders, and they typically believe young women are the only ones who struggle with body image.”
Field, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, stated the findings show that there are males who are extremely concerned with their weight and shape.
“They may be doing really unhealthy behaviors to achieve their ideal physique,” said Field. “But they are not trying to get thinner; they’re using products to help them be bigger.”
The study found boys who are concerned with their physique and use steroids or growth hormones are twice as likely to begin binge drinking and start using drugs.
The investigation included 5,000 teen boys, and found that about 2.4 percent were very worried about their masculinity, and believed increasing their muscle mass would improve their body image. Of the teen boys who expressed these thoughts, over 90 percent  used supplements.
The investigators followed these adolescents between 1999 and 2011. During that time, 9.2 percent  said they were very concerned with their muscularity but didn’t show any signs of bulimia or anorexia, while 6.3 percent of subjects were also concerned about being thin and their muscularity.
After collecting their final round of data in 2011, the researchers found boys concerned with thinness but not muscularity displayed more symptoms of depression, while boys concerned with muscularity and being thin had higher rates of drug use. The results also indicated boys concerned about muscularity that used steroids or growth hormones were more likely to start binge drinking and use drugs.
The study also found that amongst boys who expressed “masculinity” issues in 1999, nearly 100 percent stated that a doctor or parent ever spoke with them about an ideal male body image.  
“They need to tell them that changing their physique is not going to change their world. They need to help them evaluate themselves on things other than their weight and shape,” Field said.
Field also called for future studies to explore this issue, because adult involvement in teaching male body image issues hasn’t been studied to great extent.  Because the issue hasn’t been recognized to the extent of female bulimia and anorexia, Field argues that doctors and parents don’t look for it or make the connection between body image concerns and risky behaviors.
“A lot of photographs young people see are completely altered, airbrushed and retouched, so what they see as an ideal can’t be achieved,” Field said. “And males are just as influenced as females.”
Dr. James Garbutt, a professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told “Health” that a male’s preoccupation with muscularity can be a parallel marker to females’ preoccupation with thinness.
“Failure to acknowledge this in males may lead to an underestimate of disordered eating and mental distortions in young men,” said Garbutt. “We know there is a complex interplay between eating problems, self-image and use of substances including alcohol, drugs and supplements. We need to better understand the underpinnings of these connections from a genetic/biological, family/peer and cultural perspective, and we need to understand the long-term health implications in order to determine who may need treatment and what treatment should be given.”
As a former high school and college athlete, I did use supplements to increase my muscle mass, but it was because I wanted to be more competitive on the field, and had nothing to do with my body image. However, I’m sure this is the same attitude many parents and doctors have.
Of course there are males with unhealthy body issues, but if parents can have a productive conversation with their sons about the ill effects of becoming obsessed about their physique, perhaps drug use, alcoholism, and a poor self-image can be avoided.