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Whatever it takes

More and more young men aim for the perfect body through pills, powders, and dietary supplements

By Noel C. PaulStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 22, 2002

Twenty-two-year-old Steve Teixeira begins his day by scooping powder into three glasses of water. He fills the first with a multivitamin mix, the next with a protein powder, the third with creatine powder, which promises to boost his energy level and build his muscles. Then he gulps down all three.

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But that's only the beginning. By the end of a typical day, Mr. Teixeira, a trashman in Somerville, Mass., who's also an avid weightlifter, will have consumed two more glasses of creatine, two additional portions of protein mix, and a few nutrition bars.

Teixeira's regimen is part of his broadening quest for a "better body," one that's bigger, stronger, and more muscled.

He's not an isolated example. Walk into any gym or weight room in the country, and you will probably find them: men in their teens and 20s, who are turning to dietary supplements to add bulk, build muscle, or burn fat from their bodies.

Not all of them are athletes or body-builders. Yet many will use whatever legal products are available to help them dramatically change their physiques – including consuming dietary supplements that promise to do just that.

Americans spent $16.7 billion on supplements in 2000, according to the Nutrition Business Journal – most of it on products they bought in efforts to boost energy, ease depression, or overcome fatigue. But a growing segment of this market is dedicated to "body image" supplements, which claim to help users add or subtract significant weight.

Americans' interest in body-image supplements is growing rapidly: Sales have nearly doubled in four years, according to the Nutrition Business Journal. Supplements are promoted through the Internet, magazines, and television. Some are now starting to appear on supermarket shelves.

Many experts – and parents – are distressed by what they describe as the supplements' dubious claims and the lack of oversight on the part of the federal government.

Others point to the social causes fueling the supplements' popularity: American men, experts say, are growing more conscious – and critical – of their bodies than ever before. For many, dietary supplements are a quick-fix solution.

"Certainly the use of supplements is more common among younger men coming into the gym," says Harrison Pope, a professor at Harvard University's School of Medicine. "There are lots and lots of teenagers who use these substances looking for something that immediately makes them look bigger."

Supplement use gained momentum in the early 1990s as Americans started drinking shakes to make up for a supposed lack of protein in their regular diets.

Other supplements were aimed at people who began spending significant time exercising and bodybuilding. Creatine, a protein-based product that is sold to boost energy and build muscles, and ephedra, a "fat-burner," have become as common in American fitness circles as step aerobics.

Synthetic supplements, derived from human hormones, drew national attention when St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Mark McGwire broke Major League Baseball's single-season home-run record while using "andro" (androstenedione). (See box for more information on these supplements.)

The supplements' growing publicity has fueled a lengthy sales boom. Since 1997, sales of protein shakes have increased 30 percent, according to the Nutrition Business Journal. Sales of powdered protein and creatine formulas have jumped 50 percent, and sales of pill-form supplements – the majority of which are ephedra-based – have risen 44 percent.

The substances are now a common part of exercise culture, particularly among young men. "The young generation is typically overdoing everything they can get their hands on," says Acea Theroux, personal training director at the Beacon Hill Athletic Club in Boston and a former USA All-Natural Junior Body Building Champion.