New study warns of risks linked to muscle-building supplements for teens and young adults

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A recent study from the University of Toronto reveals important information about the use of muscle-building supplements, like whey protein and creatine, among teens and young adults in Canada.

The research, published in the journal Performance Enhancement & Health, highlights the widespread use, influences, and potential risks associated with these supplements.

The study analyzed data from 912 participants aged 16 to 30 as part of the Canadian Study of Adolescent Health Behaviors.

It found that nearly 60% of respondents used protein bars, and just over half used whey protein powders or shakes, making these the most popular muscle-building supplements.

Boys and men reported higher usage rates compared to girls, women, and transgender/gender expansive (TGE) participants.

“Boys and men in our study reported using an average of three muscle-building supplements in the past year,” said lead author Kyle T. Ganson, Ph.D., MSW.

“This shows how common it is for boys and men to try to achieve a muscular body ideal.”

The study found that nearly half of the participants were influenced by social media influencers to use these supplements. Fitness communities and friends also played significant roles in their decisions.

Over two-thirds of the participants got information from online websites, with noticeable differences in where they sought advice.

Girls and women were more likely to ask healthcare professionals, while boys and men preferred online forums like Reddit and YouTube.

“It’s important for healthcare, public health, and policy professionals to know where young people get information on muscle-building supplements to create effective harm reduction strategies,” said Ganson. “In Canada, regulations on these supplements are weak, and social media companies don’t restrict content about them, which can mislead young people about their safety and effectiveness.”

Only 9.8% of participants thought their use of muscle-building supplements was problematic, with TGE individuals more likely to see their use as problematic compared to cisgender participants.

Alarmingly, nearly two-thirds of participants experienced at least one symptom while using these supplements.

Common symptoms included fatigue, digestive issues, and cardiovascular problems. Despite these symptoms, 87.8% of those affected did not seek medical help.

“While we didn’t specifically determine if the supplements caused these symptoms, it’s clear that young people should be aware of potential health issues before using them. Healthcare professionals should also be aware of these findings,” Ganson noted.

The study emphasizes the need for healthcare providers to routinely ask young people about their use of muscle-building supplements, especially TGE and sexual minority individuals who reported higher rates of symptoms.

Public health programs should focus on educating about the risks and promoting reliable sources of information.

The authors also advocate for stronger regulations on the sale and advertisement of muscle-building supplements, particularly on social media platforms, to protect young people from misleading information and potential health risks.

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