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Study: teens want more muscles (and are willing to risk their health to get them)

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  November 19, 2012 10:27 AM

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When it comes to body image and teens, it's not just about lean. It's about mean.

Mean as in muscular, that is. And while pumping iron (or other exercise) is the way they most often go about trying to get those muscles, they are willing to do risky things too.

According to a study just released in the journal Pediatrics, about 34 percent of teen boys and 20 percent of teen girls have used protein powders in the past year. Ten percent of boys and five percent of girls have used creatine or other "muscle-enhancing substances". And more than five percent of both boys and girls have used steroids.

Five percent doesn't sound like much, but that's one in twenty--so out of each middle or high school classroom, one kid would be using steroids. Maybe that kid is yours.

This worries me as a pediatrician and parent. Overuse of protein powders can lead to malnutrition, weight gain and other possible health problems--and some have heavy metals such as arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury (check out the 2010 Consumer Reports article about this). There are concerns that creatine can cause kidney, liver or heart problems. And steroids can cause a whole host of physical and mental health problems.

The authors were surprised by their findings, which were much higher than previous studies had shown. While they didn't ask the teens why they wanted more muscles, the authors point to how  the media is showing more and more pictures of muscular bodies. It's not just men (there do seem to be a lot of six-pack abs in ads these days) but women, too--being beautiful isn't just about being thin. It's about having muscle definition.

One of the interesting things in the study is that the muscle-enhancing behaviors were more common in overweight teens. We can only guess at why this was true, but it feels to me like the overweight teens wanted to change their bodies--but instead of doing healthy things to decrease calories and overall weight, they worked to get more muscle instead. If they did it by exercising, that would be fine--but if they did it by drinking protein shakes, it could seriously backfire on them.

These are teens, after all--going through that time of life when they make all sorts of, um, interesting decisions. They aren't kids anymore--but that doesn't mean they don't need guidance, because they do. They need responsible, empathetic, supportive grownups more than ever.

So talk to the teens in your life. Talk to them about how they feel about their bodies--especially, talk to them about how the media images make them feel. Make sure they know that there is way more to life and success than how they look; help them find the ways they can shine. And please, talk to them about making healthy choices. 

After all, ultimately it's not about lean or mean. It's about healthy
This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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