The Little-Known Eating Disorder That May Be Going Undetected

And it's disproportionately affecting men.

They're not illegal anabolic steroids, but that doesn't mean bodybuilding supplements aren't a problem.

According to new research presented at the American Psychological Association's annual convention in Toronto this week, more and more men are using and misusing legal, over-the-counter supplements, leading to the practice's potential qualification as an emerging eating disorder.

For their research, psychotherapists Richard Achiro and Peter Theodore recruited 195 male participants between the ages of 18 and 65 who had consumed legal appearance- or performance-enhancing supplements in the past 30 days and exercised for fitness or appearance-related reasons a minimum of two times a week. The men filled out an online survey, and Achiro and Theodore then created a scale on which to measure the resulting data as it correlates significantly to other common indicators of eating disorders, like eating concerns and restrictive eating.

The researchers reported that typical supplements used by men include whey protein, creatine and L-cartinine, all of which present varying degrees of risk depending on their use and misuse. The online survey inquired about the men's use of such supplements, their general self-esteem and body image, their eating habits, and any gender-role conflicts they experience. Their answers were startling -- particularly so that 30 percent of them are concerned about their own supplement use:

"As legal supplements become increasingly prevalent around the globe, it is all the more important to assess and treat the psychological causes and effects of excessive use of these drugs and supplements,"Achiro said in a statement.

"Body-conscious men who are driven by psychological factors to attain a level of physical or masculine 'perfection' are prone to use these supplements and drugs in a manner that is excessive and which was demonstrated in this study to be a variant of disordered eating."

Achiro and Theodore concluded that the risky misuse of these exercise supplements stems from body dissatisfaction, low self-esteem, and the perception that one isn't living up to the ideas of masculinity currently accepted in our society. The fact that the products are so readily available in a variety of storefronts doesn't help matters. The "bigger, stronger, better" marketing strategies encourage potential users to view supplements as a perfect (although indirect) fix for the feelings of insecurity they don't feel comfortable expressing otherwise.

These findings reveal just how important it is to keep an eye on over-the-counter supplement abuse as a potential and serious disorder. While the study is limited by its size, further research in this space could help us not only better understand the root causes of this supplement use and misuse, but also ignite this conversation for men worldwide before it becomes too stigmatized. At the conference, Achiro and Theodore didn't mention future plans to see if this potential disorder affects women similarly, so that could be another area worth exploring empirically.

Note that these findings were presented at a conference and have yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Also on HuffPost:

Spotting The Signs Of An Eating Disorder